Saturday, April 03, 2004

Iraq one year on 

As promised yesterday, a few words about what is really happening in Iraq. It has been over a year now since the war began (but not quite yet one year since President Bush declared the end of major combat operations on May 1, 2003), but the footage reaching us on the news shows mostly the bloody aftermaths of terrorist bombings (suicide or otherwise), burnt-out vehicles on the side of the road, and wary American soldiers patrolling the streets with their fingers on the triggers. When it comes to the locals, more often than not, the media’s attention is focussed either on the sullen and silent, or the defiant Baathist left-overs jumping for joy every time a bomb goes up. It’s enough to make you think the whole enterprise is a gigantic failure and a costly waste of blood and money. Which is exactly what virtually everyone on the left, many in the media, and a small but vocal (and violent) minority inside the Iraq want you to believe.

To get the good news out of Iraq you have to ferret around the net a bit. But it’s all there, crying out for attention. I won’t bore you with a litany of good news, but here’s just a selection of interesting facts about the new Iraq that you might have missed if you are relying on the major networks and newspapers for your news:

- Iraq has got the freest economy in the Middle East, if not one of the freest in the world. There are hardly any laws and regulations in place, and what there is gets hardly enforced. There are no tariffs or duties, no restrictions on investment, and everyone pays a flat rate of tax set at 15%. A lot of the framework and infrastructure of the economy is still missing (for example a reliable banking system), but it’s a damned good start in the region that has always been such a socialist basket case.

- The recently adopted interim constitution is the most liberal in the Arab world: it guarantees and protects individual religious freedom, protects minorities, enshrines federalism, and sets the principles of democracy and the Bill or Rights as the ultimate constitutional bedrock. Unlike their Arab brethren elsewhere, the Iraqis have enjoy constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech, assembly, travel and privacy.

- Over 200,000 Iraqis already serve in security forces; health spending is 30 times higher than before the war; teachers now earn 12 to 25 times what they used to, and doctors at least 8 times – finally the right priorities in a country that for far too long had suffered from too many presidential palaces.

- Satellite dishes and mobile phones are now legal and all the rage in Iraq. At least half a million of used cars have been imported from neighbouring countries. The economy is expected to grow at between 7 and 9% per year for the next decade.

I could go on and on – if you want more information, check out these sources: Paul Bremer’s remarks to the Iraqi Governing Council in March this year (and that website generally), Mark Steyn in “The Spectator”, Fred Barnes in “The Weekly Standard” and Nina Shea in “National Review Online”.

There are still many problems, as you would imagine there would be in a country, which had suffered three decades of brutal dictatorship, numerous wars and economic sanctions, and which has no real tradition of democratic government, liberalism and free market. On top of that there is the continuing terrorism and violence, and let’s not forget the often ambivalent attitude of the Iraqi people themselves – as Fred Barnes writes, “Like the French, they [the Iraqis] may never forgive America for having liberated them.” The Arab mentality, which focuses so much on concepts such as honour, shame, and loss of face, does not make the job of reconstruction any easier.

The whole ambitious project of turning Iraq into a normal country can yet fail. But at least we (including 800 Aussies currently there) have tried our best.


Friday, April 02, 2004

Weekend reading 

A highly recommended short piece by Professor Fouad Ajami, one of the most insightful commentators on Islam and Arab world. This is his perspective on radical Islam finding its new home in Europe. "Europe's leaders know Europe's dilemmas. In ways both intended and subliminal, the escape into anti-Americanism is an attempt at false bonding with the peoples of Islam. Give the Arabs--and the Muslim communities implanted in Europe--anti-Americanism, give them an identification with the Palestinians, and you shall be spared their wrath. Beat the drums of opposition to America's war in Iraq, and the furies of this radical Islamism will pass you by. This is seen as a way around the troubles. But there is no exit that way. It is true that Spain supported the American campaign in Iraq, but that aside, Spain's identification with Arab aims has a long history. Of all the larger countries of the EU, Spain has been most sympathetic to Palestinian claims. It was only in 1986 that Spain recognized Israel and established diplomatic ties. With the sole exception of Greece, Spain has shown the deepest reserve toward Israel. Yet this history offered no shelter from the bombers of March 11."


The lessons of Fallujah 

A very good article from Robert Alt, who reports from Iraq in the aftermath of the bloody incident in Fallujah, where four American civilian contractors were killed by the Iraqi insurgents.

Writes Alt: “The difficulty in solving the problem in Fallujah is profound. Those who commit violent acts must be dealt with in the most serious manner. I fear that the Western media is already showing squeamishness about the use of force by Marines, but they would do well to remember that Iraqis generally subscribe to a philosophy that respects strength, and not weakness. Failing to respond to the violence therefore would invite still more violence, not less.”

And: “Because of turbulent areas such as Fallujah and the random acts of terrorism throughout the country, Iraq is still a very dangerous place. But these dangers, though serious, are not statistically representative of the views of the Iraqi people. A major goal of the terrorists and the small enclaves of Saddam supporters is to use dramatic attacks such as the one in Fallujah to garner media attention, and thereby to skew public perception concerning Iraqi sentiment and the progress of the transition. But the view on the street — the view of the average Iraqi enjoying his first taste of freedom — is one of hope and promise.”

Let us continue to bear in mind that good news is no – or at least very rarely – news, and as Alt notes, we should not allow the tragedies like the one in Fallujah, or indeed the continuing casualties suffered by the US military, to overshadow the progress being made every day and in every way in Iraq (I’ll write more about that soon).

Similarly, let us remember that – just like flying planes into skyscrapers or strapping barely pubescent teenagers with explosives and sending them off into pizzerias –actions in Fallujah are designed to give the terrorists the biggest bang for their buck. Burning, mutilating and finally hanging corpses from bridges is precisely meant to cause the maximum jitters and second thoughts. If the war on terror has any lesson so far, it is that it cannot; we must not allow the leftover Saddamite scum in the Sunni Triangle to make their own “Black Hawk Down” sequel.

Speaking of history and lessons of the war on terror, you can always trust Ann Coulter not to hold any punches.

But for now, I’m starting a collection to raise money for enough barbed wire to completely surround Fallujah. You might have seen in the papers the photo of a local insurgent sympathiser proudly holding up a piece of paper that reads “Fallujah – the cemetery of the Americans.” Mate, I’ve been to American military cemeteries – they’re beautiful, peaceful and well maintained. You should be so lucky if your town was anything like that.


I'll have some fries with that 

It seems that getting fat is not the only potential risk you face when going into a fast food joint. Check out this story from the US (where else?) about a hoaxer who pretends to be a police officer and convinces restaurant managers to perform body searches (including cavity searches!) on “suspect” customers and employees. So if you accidentally drop a coin at your local fast food outlet, be not just alert but also very alarmed.

Meanwhile, over the border (their’s, not our’s), in that wacky part of North American Europe called Canada, a group of feminists wants to tax porn. For all those small government activists among us, it gives a whole new meaning to the old slogan “get your hand out of my pocket.”

And in Austria, a doctor claims that picking your nose and eating your snot is good for you. This is the country which gave us the vegetarian Hitler and the ever-expanding Schwarzenegger, so this latest contribution to the world seems quite benign by comparison. Love the quote: “He [the doctor] says society should adopt a new approach to nose-picking and encourage children to take it up.” I would have thought that children hardly need any more encouragement to do it.


So far so good 

It has been three days so far for me in the blogsphere and I've enjoyed the experience very much. Thanks for all the visits to the site, all the publicity, and positive comments. Thanks also to those readers who had linked "Chrenkoff" to their own blogs. I will be updating my links sections shortly to include more interesting avenues for people to pursue.

To all those who have asked where "chrenkin' off" came from, I can only blame my friend Dave who some time ago came up with the definition of "to chrenk off" as (if my memory serves me correctly) "to argue passionately and intelligently against the Left." But then again, the word "raving" might have been used there too.


Thursday, April 01, 2004

Like Singapore, Latham's guns point in the wrong direction 

So Mark Latham is sticking to his guns (so to speak) on his commitment to bring our troops home for Christmas; a Whitlamesque policy, justified with Curtin’s rationale, and pursued with the softly-softly touch made famous by Paul Keating. When you remember, however, that it was McMahon and not Whitlam who brought our boys back from Vietnam, and that Curtin was chucking a tantrum because the Japanese were on our doorsteps while our troops were in the Middle East, all that’s left of Latham’s initiative is Keating’s style. And that’s not much to have going for one’s policy.

Latham, of course, is not very clear on how our 800 personnel, currently deployed in Iraq, will be better used to make us safe at home. Send them to patrol city streets? (Who knows, they might actually stop another gangland killing in Melbourne.) Have our infantrymen sniffing bags at the airports for explosives? SAS to protect taxi drivers from dangerous and violent individuals?

And why stop at our contingent in Iraq? After all, if our domestic security is so overstretched because of overseas commitments, why not bring back home our peacekeepers from East Timor and the Solomons, as well as our police and advisers from the PNG? They’re closer to home than those in the Middle East, so the ADF can save on transport costs. Pulling out of East Timor will have the additional benefit of satisfying the demands of Bin Laden and his cronies in South East Asia, who want to see East Timor returned to the Muslim fold, where it supposedly belongs. Hey Mark, if you’re trying to appease Al-Quaeda by pulling out of Iraq, why not also appease Jemaah Islamiah while you’re at it? That the beaut thing about appeasement – there’s always plenty of it to go around, and as the Pringles slogan goes, “once you pop, you can’t stop”.

So Mark, why not just come out and say that what you really want home by Christmas is yourself at the Lodge. Stuff the troops, stuff our allies, and stuff the people of Iraq even more. Politics is war, after all, and casualties are inevitable.


When I was six I wanted to be an astronaut... 

But it seems that the 6-year old Uzair Dockrat, over in South Africa, would rather become a "martyr". His father, Mohammad Dockrat, who strapped a fake explosives belt to his son's body and dragged him off to protest the assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Yassin, also doesn't seem to mind if the young Uzair detonates himself sometime in the future.

Uzair's dad is - you've guessed it - a university lecturer.

As they say, different strokes for different folks - what would a white, middle class, heterosexual male like me understand about different cultures anyway?


Steyn on "The Passion" 

Everyone's favourite commentator, Mark Steyn, finally published his own review of Mel Gibson's movie. The money quote (actually one of many, as it so often happens with Steyn's pieces): "In this [post-Christian] world, if Jesus were alive today he’d most likely be a gay Anglican bishop in a committed relationship driving around in an environmentally-friendly car with an “Arms Are For Hugging” sticker on the way to an interfaith dialogue with a Wiccan and a couple of Wahhabi imams. If that’s your boy, Mel Gibson’s movie is not for you."


Blitzkrieg in reverse 

Two interesting reports from Germany. Apparently, only 12% among the 508 German business and political leaders surveyed by the Capital magazine want to see Bush re-elected. 76% favour his opponent, John Kerry. Meanwhile, German President Johannes Rau was recently forced to cancel his trip to a tiny African country of Djibouti, after receiving intelligence reports suggesting he is a target for assassination by Islamic terrorists. But I thought that if you are anti-American enough and do your utmost to oppose the liberation of Iraq by those damn Yankee infidels you should be safe from the terrorist wrath? I guess Germany will have to try the appeasement even harder.


Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The Kingdom not of this world strikes back 

Mel Gibson's "Passion" continues its dream run at the US box office. I would not be surprised if following the Easter period it overtakes "The Return of the King" on its way to $400 million. In addition, far from precipitating a wave of synagogue-burning and Jew-bashing, as critics have feared, "The Passion" has managed to thaw some consciences.

Here's my thoughts (rather a lot of them) I wrote down soon after watching the film:

It’s not every year that a self-financed vanity project with a largely unknown foreign cast speaking solely in two dead languages becomes a cinematic phenomenon. Thanks to a series of controversy-generating leaks, “The Passion of the Christ” has become something of a phenomenon long before its release. Now, its status as the 2004’s movie to see gets reinforced with every new broken box office record.

Mel Gibson probably didn’t quite expect – or care about – all the hullabaloo that has erupted around his work. Yet “The Passion”, like no other movie in recent times, has divided America (and to a lesser extent other Western countries), with the majority of critics and commentators behaving like the film’s Sanhedrin, indignantly shaking their golden staffs and theatrically tearing their robes at the sight of the blasphemer. The masses, on the other hand, instead of baying for Gibson’s blood, have flocked into suburban megaplexes in droves, ignoring the learned opinion of their betters. Lest I myself get accused of blasphemy for comparing the controversial director/producer to Christ, let me make it clear I don’t consider Gibson a saint, much less a Hollywood Messiah. I am rather amused, though, by how little the politics have changed from the first century Judea to the twenty first century United States.

Proving that September 11 only subdued but never finished the culture wars, the believers and the curious are now streaming into theatres, the former rejoicing that a mainstream film finally took their faith seriously. Meanwhile, our enlightened liberal elites have (often without the benefit of seeing the movie first) passed their own judgement: “The Passion” is a violent anti-Semitic flop. Considering the consensus reaction, one would think that Gibson had produced a Quentin Tarantino remake of “The Eternal Jew”.

So is Gibson’s movie a spiritual masterpiece or misguided, brutal schlock? To quote the Gospels, what is the truth? As Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men” would I think say, the truth is that our enlightened elites can’t handle the truth. Here’s why.

The most common charge of the liberal commentariat against Gibson’s epic is that it’s too violent. Hollywood’s standard output over the years must have succeeded in completely desensitising me, for I did not squirm or turn my gaze away during the movie. Personally, I find Tarantino’s “coolification” of violence and Rodriguez’s brutal nihilism far more unsettling and disgusting than Gibson’s vision of Christ’s suffering.

Own reaction aside, is the film objectively violent? Well, here’s a newsbreak for the critics: crucifixion was the most gruesome form of public execution practiced by the Romans and its propaganda shock value was not infrequently explored to send a clear and simple message to those under the Roman authority: don’t mess with us or we’ll make it really really painful for you. So yes, as befits its subject matter, Gibson’s is a violent movie, but is it gratuitously and unnecessarily so? Again, not if you call your movie “The Passion” and focus on the last twelve hours in the life of Christ. I’m sure a trendier director could find ways to de-emphasise or soften the inherently violent nature of Jesus’s demise (which is why we already have Scorsese’s Christ fantasising on the cross about sex with Mary Magdalene), but Gibson is unsophisticated enough to focus on the fact that yes, Jesus was indeed horribly mistreated, scourged, tortured and finally executed in the most painful and prolonged way available to his contemporaries. No false advertising here: this is not a “happy Jesus” family movie experience; you go into the theatre fully expecting to witness Christ’s agony in all its naturalistic gory detail. It might be a shock for the comfortable and soft middle and upper middle classes, but reality often is.

The gore factor, in turn, leads to another common accusation levelled against “The Passion”: by ghoulishly focussing on Christ’s physical suffering and death, Gibson denies the viewer a chance to meet the fuller Christ of the Gospels (“If only Gibson had taken the time to tell more of us why it mattered,” laments “The Washington Post”). With exception of brief and confusing flashbacks we see little of Jesus’s life and mission, and, as critics argue, among all the torrents of our Saviour’s blood splashing on the screen we are unlikely to learn much about his teachings and his message. Thus, Gibson stands accused of decontextualising Christ by divorcing his horrible end from his pre- (and if you’re a Christian, also his post- ) crucifixion life. Devoid of such broader context Jesus’s suffering is turned into a sadomasochistic spectacle that shocks the viewers but doesn’t teach them much about Christ himself.

This is a very disingenuous accusation, coming as it is from our cultural elites, which have made it one of their most important missions to ridicule, demystify and marginalise Christianity in our society. Our fiercely secular elites have by now largely succeeded (more so in Europe and Australia, less so in the United States) in creating and shaping the new, post-Christian culture, where the word “Christ” is nothing more than an exclamation mark and an old church is but an empty building more useful if converted into a nightclub or an art gallery. It is a bit rich now for the liberals to complain that Gibson’s one-dimensional focus will confound and perplex the viewers instead of educating and enriching them – the elites have, after all, worked particularly hard to ensure that religion is rarely a topic for serious discussion and younger generations are among the most ignorant about the Judeo-Christian tradition that has so significantly shaped the Western society and culture.

Not that I expect many post-Christians (with exception of the obliged reviewers and commentators) will actually go and see “The Passion”. Why watch some ancient dude getting scourged and nailed to the cross if you can watch “Kill Bill” instead? Those attracted to see Gibson’s movie can be safely assumed to have come to the movies with all the necessary factual and spiritual background knowledge. They will be able to place Christ’s final hours in the context of his life and mission, and they will be fully aware that Christ’s suffering is not a meaningless and gratuitous spectacle, but a necessary part in the cosmic drama of redemption and salvation.

Let’s come finally to the critics’s ultimate anti-Gibson canard: that the movie is anti-Semitic. Unsurprisingly, there’s more politics than religion to this accusation. It is one of the articles of faith for the liberal commentariat that strong religious commitment invariably goes hand in hand with narrow-mindedness, bigotry, ignorance, intolerance and violence. For those for whom “religious right” is a term of abuse, a Christian believer will always be an ill-educated, prejudiced hick, more at home in the Middle Ages then in our post-modern, multi-cultural, liberal utopia. It’s little wonder that our elites actually seem to believe that after watching “The Passion” the viewers will leave theatres and drive their pick up trucks to the nearest synagogue to burn it down.

At least, as Ann Coulter noted, it’s nice of the elites to have finally noticed that anti-Semitism is a problem. Pity about the target of their indignation. In a world where young Muslim men and women strap themselves with explosives and jump onto peak hour buses in Jerusalem, it seems stupid, if not actually obscene, to worry about the impact of Gibson’s movie on middle class American or Australian viewers. The trendy liberal elites, who as a general rule simply don’t get the whole “religion thing”, not surprisingly failed to notice a seismic shift taking place in the West over the last few decades: it is now the derided fundamentalist Christians who arguably the most philosemitic segment of our society, as well as the strongest supporters of the state of Israel. At the same time, anti-Semitism has become an obsession shared by an unholy coalition of the secular left and Islamic fundamentalism.

That’s why we shouldn’t really expect members of Glad Tidings Baptist Church to detonate themselves inside a Jewish restaurant after watching “The Passion”. Conversely, we should expect that Hamas militants will, without the benefit of Gibson’s film. Yes, we in the West were guilty of anti-Semitic pogroms in the past. Just as we were guilty of promoting slavery, and witch-burning, and the persecution of heretics. But we have moved on. Many other parts of the world unfortunately haven’t. The ever-concerned critics would potentially save a lot more Jewish lives if rather then lashing out against “The Passion” they would focus their attention and anger on the fact that, for example, the Egyptian state TV routinely screens mini-series based on the notorious anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elder of Zion”. But true to their form, in a curious inversion of Christ’s words, our elites prefer to dwell on the sliver in their own eye rather than a beam in someone else’s.

I consider myself a friend of the Jewish people and a strong supporter of the state of Israel, so I sat through “The Passion” with my anti-Semitism antennae fully extended and on-guard for any subtle expressions of prejudice. I didn’t find Gibson’s movie anti-Semitic. The bottom line is that Jesus was a Jew, his supporters were Jewish, and his enemies were Jewish too. This the film portrays faithfully, just as it does the fact that in the end Jesus was executed by the Romans. Our PC elites would much rather have Jesus nail himself to the cross to avoid having any human agency responsible for his death. For critics it’s still the year 1500 and all Christians are dumb enough to take literally that whole “his blood on our heads and our children’s” thing. After all, it helps to make a didactic point about dangers of religious fundamentalism. But it’s Gibson, for all the accusations of unsophistication and lack of subtlety, who is nuanced (and realistic) enough to know that there were Jews who wanted Jesus to die as a blasphemer, just as there were Jews who believed him to be the Messiah – and just as there were cruel, vulgar and stupid Romans who so cruelly put Jesus to death, there were also those uncomfortable with the turn of events, even if in the end they lacked courage to do anything about it. History might be a morality play, but it doesn’t mean that its participants are stereotyped cardboard cut-outs.

Not satisfied with the charge of anti-Semitism, critics also wrong Gibson for presenting us with a white-washed, almost sympathetic figure of Pontius Pilate. The historical Pilate was by all accounts a harsh and insensitive imperial apparatchik, although the truth be told we don’t know a lot about him outside of the Gospels, and what we do know invariably comes down to us from sources biased against him. Still, our enlightened elites would do well not to be too tough on Pilate, for spiritually he’s a lot closer to them then they realise. His most famous question “What is truth?” (as well as ultimately his inability to answer it himself) make him an early patron saint of post-modernism and relativism. His dithering and lack of spine suggest more than anything a first century United Nations administrator, seemingly well intentioned but in the end too gutless to stop the slaughter in Srebrenica or in Rwanda.

In the end the whole question of who killed Jesus is meaningless. Christianity teaches that we all did. It teaches us that that God so loved his creation that he sent his son to take human form and to be killed for our salvation. The bottom line is Jesus came to this world as the ultimate sacrificial lamb – he had to die. Judas who betrayed him, Jewish notables who condemned him, the mob who bayed for his blood, the fearful disciples who deserted him, last but not least all of us whose sins sent him to Gogotha – were all part of God’s plan; it had to be that way for Christ’s sacrifice to take place. “The Passion”’s viewers are sophisticated enough to know that – pity that our elites aren’t.

“The Passion” is destined to remain a perfect cinematic and political Rorschach test for out times, with everyone seeing in the movie what they want to see. For Christians and conservatives the movie will be evidence that popular culture can do so much better, and Christians in particular will continue to enjoy their newly demonstrated commercial clout. For liberals it will be a salutary lesson on how things would look like if the Christian Right ever got their hands on Hollywood.

And when the controversy over “The Passion” finally dies down, it will leave us with a few unexpected legacies. The star of “Mad Max” and “Lethal Weapon” ridiculed and hounded for bringing Christ to the screen. Secular liberals attempting to lecture people on theology. And Christians and conservatives defending violence in a movie.

The Lord truly moves in mysterious ways.


From Munich to Madrid in 10 easy concessions 

Churchill once said that appeasement is like continually feeding an alligator in the hope that it will eat you last. But that's not quite right. What Europe is doing today is feeding the alligator in the hope that it will not eat them at all. On that basis, the Europeans are quite happy to keep feeding to the Islamist alligator all the Jews, the Arabs, the Americans and other expendables they can lay their hands on.

The last time Europe has tried that trick the enlightened opinion had it that Hitler's only aim - the one he would settle down after achieving - was re-arming and re-introducing conscription in Germany, then re-militarising the Ruhr, then "re-uniting" with Austria, then taking the Sudetenland, then the rest of Czechoslovakia, then the Free City of Danzig and the land corridor to East Prussia, then... Unfortunately we do not know what else the European appeasers were willing to concede to Hitler, because by that stage the Second World War had unexpectedly broken out.

Europe has misread and misunderstood the nature of the Islamist alligator, just as it had in the past misread the nature of the Nazi alligator and the Soviet alligator. Hitler was not to be satisfied with limited political gains. His vision for the Thousand Year Reich might or might not have included the world domination, but it had certainly stretched from the Atlantic to the Urals. The Soviet Union was even more ambitious, even if the experts have mistaken the strategic, post World War Two stalemate along the Iron Curtain as the permanent limit to communist territorial ambitions.

Europe is no stranger to terrorism; most of it, however, had pretty clear aims. One sure way to stop the ETA was always to political independence to the Basques; ditto with the IRA and the Northern Ireland. Wise or not, such capitulation would have brought the end to violence.

The Islamist alligator is different. It is a metaphysical, not a political animal. Its vision is global, not local and limited. It will not be sated with the victory in Kashmir or Chechnya, the destruction of Israel, or even the introduction of Taliban-style theocracy across all Muslim lands. The Islamic alligator hates the "West" with its democracy, freedoms and liberties, its separation of church and state, its culture, mores and institutions. The West provides too much of a competition for the Islamic alligator's own ideological vision, and so it will not rest until such competition is eliminated. Europe stands in the way. Hopefully, Europe will realise it one day. Hopefully before it is too late.


Let the "Chrenkin' off" begin 

Welcome to the Chrenkoff Blog. After years of inflicting my opinions on long-suffering family and friends, first face to face, and then increasingly via email, I decided it was time enough to join the revolution. So stay tuned for unashamedly biased opinion, commentary, late-night musings - pure unadulterated 100% "Chrenkin' off" about politics, international relations, culture and whatever else takes my fancy - always from the Right side.


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