“It’s a Quagmire”

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Dick Cheney

“Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place?

That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. Part of it the Syrians would like to have to the west. Part of eastern Iraq, the Iranians would like to claim, fought over for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire.”

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Dick Cheney, riffing in an interview with CNN on April 15th, 1994.

Go on:

What Would Lawrence of Arabia Do about the Middle East?

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T. E. Lawrence

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”

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Rule #15 in T. E. Lawrence’s “Twenty Seven Rules” which summarized for the British army his approach to Arab warfare. It was published in 1917.

Credit to TheDish.

“One Time” by Christian Wiman

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Car at the Dead Sea

But the world is more often refuge
than evidence, comfort and covert
for the flinching will, rather than the sharp
particulate instants through which God’s being burns
into ours. I say God and mean more
than the bright abyss that opens in that word.
I say world and mean less
than the abstract oblivion of atoms
out of which every intact thing emerges,
into which every intact thing finally goes.
I do not know how to come closer to God
except by standing where a world is ending
for one man. It is still dark,
and for an hour I have listened
to the breathing of the woman I love beyond
my ability to love. Praise to the pain
scalding us toward each other, the grief
beyond which, please God, she will live
and thrive. And praise to the light that is not
yet, the dawn in which one bird believes,
crying not as if there had been no night
but as if there were no night in which it had not been.

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“One Time” by Christian Wiman.

Read my pal Matthew Sitman’s brilliant essay on Wiman, which opens with the following evaluation of “One Time” and what it means in the context of modern American Christianity.

Whatever else these heavy words might express, they reveal the paradoxical essence of Christianity, that there is no experience of resurrection that does not go through the cross, that defeat and despair mark the places from which solace unexpectedly emerges.

This capacity to avoid the empty optimism of so much American religion – the word “abyss” appears more than once in “One Time” – finds balance, however, in the flickering hope that also appears…

Listen to Wiman talk with Sitman and Andrew Sullivan, in an illuminating discussion of faith, doubt, meaning in suffering, and Philip Larkin, right here.

The photo: taken in the Dead Sea in Israel

Realizing Friendship

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Sam Harris

“In the midst of this ordinariness, however, I was suddenly struck by the knowledge that I loved my friend. This shouldn’t have surprised me—he was, after all, one of my best friends. However, at that age I was not in the habit of dwelling on how much I loved the men in my life. Now I could feel that I loved him, and this feeling had ethical implications that suddenly seemed as profound as they now sound pedestrian on the page: I wanted him to be happy.

That conviction came crashing down with such force that something seemed to give way inside me. In fact, the insight appeared to restructure my mind. My capacity for envy, for instance—the sense of being diminished by the happiness or success of another person—seemed like a symptom of mental illness that had vanished without a trace. I could no more have felt envy at that moment than I could have wanted to poke out my own eyes. What did I care if my friend was better looking or a better athlete than I was? If I could have bestowed those gifts on him, I would have. Truly wanting him to be happy made his happiness my own…

Love was at bottom impersonal—and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love—I love you because…—now made no sense at all.”

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From Waking Up by Sam Harris. (Find the entire opening chapter, from which this excerpt is pulled, along with Harris’s reading of it here.)

What Could’ve Been among Jews and Arabs

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King Faisal of Iraq

Paris, March 3, 1919.
DEAR MR. FRANKFURTER:

I want to take this opportunity of my first contact with American Zionists to tell you what I have often been able to say to Dr. Weizmann in Arabia and Europe.

We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in having suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves, and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together.

We Arabs, especially the educated among us look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organisation to Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate proper.

We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.

With the chiefs of your movement, especially with Dr. Weizmann, we have had and continue to have the closest relations. He has been a great helper of our cause, and I hope the Arabs may soon be in a position to make the Jews some return for their kindness. We are working together for a reformed and revived Near East, and our two movements complete one another.

The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is national and not imperialist, and there is room in Syria for us both. Indeed I think that neither can be a real success without the other…

I look forward, and my people with me look forward, to a future in which we will help you and you will help us, so that the countries in which we are mutually interested may once again take their places in the community of civilised peoples of the world.

Believe me,
Yours sincerely,
(Sgd.) Feisal. 3rd MARCH, 1919.

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letter sent from Feisal Husseini (above, center), then King of Syria and later Iraq, to United States Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter (pictured below).

Read on:

Felix Frankfurter

Our Partisanship as a Moral Failing

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David Brooks 32

John Meacham: If our country itself is irreconcilably polarized, then in classic republican — lowercase “r” — thinking, that is going to be reflected in our political system.

David Brooks: I’m coming around to that view, which I was very resistant to over the last ten years. A lot of people have argued that [polarization] begins out in the country, not in Washington. I guess I more or less accept that now.

And I think it’s a moral failing that we all share. Which is that if you have a modest sense of your own rightness, and if you think that politics is generally a competition between half-truths, then you’re going to need the other people on the other side, and you’re going to value the similarity of taste. You know, you may disagree with a Republican, or disagree with a Democrat, but you’re still American and you still basically share the same culture. And you know your side is half wrong.

If you have that mentality that ‘Well, I’m probably half wrong; he’s probably half right,’ then it’s going to be a lot easier to come to an agreement. But if you have an egotistical attitude that ‘I’m 100% right and they’re 100% wrong,’ which is a moral failing — a failing of intellectual morality — then it’s very hard to come to an agreement.

And I do think that we’ve had a failure of modesty about our own rightness and wrongness. And I’m in the op-ed business, so believe me that people like me have contributed as much as anybody to this moral failure. But I think it has built up gradually and has become somewhat consuming.

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David Brooks and Jon Meacham, in conversation when Meacham subbed for Charlie Rose this summer.

More:

  • George Washington rips party politics
  • Mark Leibovich rips our cowardly political culture
  • Meacham and Brooks riff on Jefferson and Hamilton

John Meacham

Is the World Getting Worse?

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Martin Amis

“You ask yourself the question every time you open a newspaper or switch on the TV or walk the streets… You know the question. It reads: Just what the hell is going on around here?

The world looks worse every day. Is it worse, or does it just look it? The world gets older. The world has seen and done it all. Boy, is it beat. It’s suicidal… the world has done too many things too many times with too many people, done it this way, that way, with him, with him. The world has been to so many parties, been in so many fights, lost its keys, had its handbag stolen, drunk too much. It all adds up. A tab is presented. Our ironic destiny. Look at the modern infamies, the twentieth-century sins. Some are strange, some banal, but they all offend the eye, covered in their newborn vernix. Gratuitous or recreational crimes of violence, the ever-less-tacit totalitarianism of money (money—what is this shit anyway?), the pornographic proliferation, the nuclear collapse of the family (with the breeders all going critical, and now the children running too), the sappings and distortions of a mediated reality, the sexual abuse of the very old and the very young (of the weak, the weak): what is the hidden denominator here, and what could explain it all?

To paraphrase Bujak, as I understood him. We live in a shameful shadowland. Quietly, our idea of human life has changed, thinned out. We can’t help but think less of it now. The human race has declassed itself. It does not live anymore; it just survives, like an animal. We endure the suicide’s shame, the shame of the murderer, the shame of the victim. Death is all we have in common. And what does that do to life?”

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Martin Amis, writing in the short story “Bujak and the Strong Force, or God’s Dice,” contained in his collection Einstein’s Monsters.

Martin Amis

The Walk Back from the Mailbox

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John Updike 2

“And the other morning, a Sunday morning, around nine, walking back up my driveway in my churchgoing clothes, having retrieved the Sunday Globe from my mailbox, I experienced happiness so sharply I tried to factor it into its components. (1) The Christmas season was over — the presents, the parties, the ‘overshadowing’ — and that was a relief. (2) My wife and I had just made love, successfully all around, which at my age occasions some self-congratulation. (3) It was a perfect winter day, windless, with fresh snow heaped along the driveway by the plow and a cobalt-blue sky precisely fitted against the dormered roof-line of my house. I admired this blank blue sky…

Even toward myself, as my own life’s careful manager and promoter, I feel a touch of disdain. Precociously conscious of the precious, inexplicable burden of selfhood, I have steered my unique little craft carefully, at the same time doubting that carefulness is the most sublime virtue. He that gains his life shall lose it.

In this interim of gaining and losing, it clears the air to disbelieve in death and to believe that the world was created to be praised. But I inherited a skeptical temperament. My father believed in science and my mother in nature. She looked and still looks to the plants and the animals for orientation, and I have absorbed the belief that when in doubt we should behave, if not like monkeys, like ‘savages’ — that our instincts and appetites are better guides, for a healthy life, than the advice of other human beings. People are fun, but not quite serious or trustworthy in the way that nature is. We feel safe, huddled within human institutions — churches, banks, madrigal groups — but these concoctions melt away at the basic moments. The self’s responsibility, then, is to achieve rapport if not rapture with the giant, cosmic other: to appreciate, let’s say, the walk back from the mailbox.”

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John Updike, writing in the concluding paragraphs of his memoir Self-Consciousness.

More from Updike:

John Updike, Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1962

Why History?

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David McCullough

“History shows us how to behave. History teaches, reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for… History is — or should be — the bedrock of patriotism. Not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism, but the real thing: love of country.

At their core, the lessons of history are largely lessons in appreciation. Everything we have, all our great institutions, hospitals, universities, libraries, this city, our laws, our music, art, poetry, our freedoms, everything is because somebody went before us and did the hard work, provided the creative energy, provided the money, provided the belief. Do we disregard that?

Indifference to history isn’t just ignorant, it’s rude. It’s a form of ingratitude.

I’m convinced that history encourages, as nothing else does, a sense of proportion about life, and gives us a sense of the relative scale of our own time on earth and how valuable it is.

What history teaches it teaches mainly by example. It inspires courage and tolerance. It encourages a sense of humor. It is an aid to navigation in perilous times… Think how tough our predecessors were. Think what they had been through. There’s no one in this room who hasn’t an ancestor who went through some form of hell. Churchill in his great speech in the darkest hours of the Second World War, when he crossed the Atlantic, reminded us, ‘We haven’t journeyed this far because we are made of sugar candy.’[...]

But, I think, what it really comes down to is that history is an extension of life. It both enlarges and intensifies the experience of being alive. It’s like poetry and art. Or music. And it’s ours, to enjoy. If we deny our children that enjoyment, that adventure in the larger part of the human experience, we’re cheating them out of a full life.

There’s no secret to making history come alive. Barbara Tuchman said it perfectly: ‘Tell stories.’ The pull, the appeal is irresistible, because history is about two of the greatest of all mysteries — time and human nature.

How lucky we are. How lucky we are to enjoy in our work and in our lives, the possibilities, the precision and reach, the glories of the English language. How lucky we are, how very lucky we are, to live in this great country, to be Americans — Americans all.”

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David McCullough, speaking at the 1995 National Book Awards.

Although in the three weeks since my last post this site’s been been mentioned by Buzzfeed and my generous pals at TheDish, I’m in the process of winding down for the summer. I had planned to write a few words to explain this move, but the simple reason for it is that I’ve been short on time. I’m not sure when I’ll be back to writing on here more frequently, but it will probably be a matter of months, so keep your eyes out.

David McCullough

Johnny Cash on Work Ethic, Preachers, and Singing Gospel Music with Elvis

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Johnny Cash

Barney Hoskins: Do you really need to tour so much? Do you need to work so hard and drive yourself so hard?

Johnny Cash: For my soul I do. Yeah, for my soul. It’s a gift. My mother always told me that any talent is a gift of God, and I always believed that. If I quit, I would just live in front of the television and get fat and die pretty soon. So I don’t want to do that. You know I just hope and pray I can die with my boots on. I’ve been in hospital beds and I don’t want to end it up there…

I went through a period that I didn’t want to sing those old songs again. I finally decided that I was really cheating them and myself. And I started singing all the old ones with gusto and lust. Like I loved them. Those songs, “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Ring of Fire”. They’re part of me. They’re an extension of me when I get in front of that microphone. There’s a part of me going through that mic, you know, to that audience. They feel it and they know it if I feel it, you know. They’ll turn it right back to me, the appreciation. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what performing is all about, is sharing and communicating.

Barney Hoskins: Could you have ever been a preacher? Were you ever tempted to–?

Johnny Cash: No. I think in my world of religion, you’re called to preach or you don’t preach. Called by God to preach. I never been ordained by God to preach the gospel. I have a calling, it’s called to perform and sing. That’s it. I think gospel song is a ministry in a way. Gospel music is so ingrained into my bones, you know. I can’t do a concert without singing a gospel song. It’s what I was raised on.

It was the thing that inspired me as a child growing up on a cotton farm, where work was drudgery and it was so hard that when I was in the field I sang all the time. Usually gospel songs because they lifted me up above that black dirt.

johnny cash

Barney Hoskins: I was going to ask you how the pain is in your jaw these days.

Johnny Cash: It’s pretty severe.

Barney Hoskins: Really? All the time? Constant?

Johnny Cash: Almost all the time, yeah.

Barney Hoskins: How do you–

Johnny Cash: Except when I’m on stage.

Barney Hoskins: Really?

Johnny Cash: Yeah.

Barney Hoskins: That’s miraculous that it just leaves you. Power of music I guess.

Johnny Cash: Yeah, I pray for that and it works. It doesn’t alter or hinder my performance.

Barney Hoskins: It must be a struggle to have to take pain killers at the same time, to be able to regulate them–

Johnny Cash: I don’t take them. I can’t take them. It’s like an alcoholic: he can’t drink. I can’t take pain pills.

Johnny Cash

Barney Hoskins: You must be very brave to–

Johnny Cash: No. I’m not very brave because for five years I didn’t try to take the pain. I fought it. I had a total of 34 surgical procedures on my left jaw. Every doctor I’ve been to knows what to do next, too. To relieve me of pain, I don’t believe any of them. I’m handling it. It’s my pain. I’m not being brave either. I’m not brave at all after what I’ve been through, I just know how to handle it.

Barney Hoskins: When you look at yourself in the mirror do you feel like an American icon when you look at yourself in the mirror?

Johnny Cash: God, what a question. Shit. I see the pimples on my nose and I see the fat jaw from the pain where it’s swollen… Icon? No. I don’t see him. He’s not in my mirror. Thanks anyway.

Barney Hoskins: I was interested to know whether you ever talked about gospel music with Elvis?

Johnny Cash: Oh yeah. That’s all we talked about. Well that wasn’t all, we talked about girls too. Yeah, Elvis and I, a lot of shows we would sing together in the dressing room and invariably we’d go to black gospel. We knew the same songs. We grew up on the same songs.

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Johnny Cash, speaking in an interview with Barney Hoskins on October 14th, 1996.


More American icons:

Johnny Cash

“Friends” by Ian Hamilton

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Cat in the Window

‘At one time we wanted nothing more
Than to wake up in each other’s arms.’
Old enemy,
You want to live forever
And I don’t
Was the last pact we made
On our last afternoon together.

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“Friends” by Ian Hamilton.

I have to thank my friend John Etheridge for sending me along Hamilton’s way, and for writing poetry that’s certainly worth exploring.

The above photo: taken in my backyard in Houston, Texas.

More from Hamilton: BiographyEpitaph, In Dreams

Ian Hamilton

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