Wednesday, March 26, 2008

the great tantra challenge

on 3 march 2008, in a popular tv show, sanal edamaruku, the president of rationalist international, challenged india's most "powerful" tantri (black magician) to demonstrate his powers on him. that was the beginning of an unprecedented experiment. after all his chanting of mantra (magic words) and ceremonies of tantra failed, the tantrik decided to kill sanal edamaruku with the "ultimate destruction ceremony" on live tv. sanal eamaruku agreed and sat in the altar of the black magic ritual. india tv observed skyrocketing viewership rates.

everything started, when uma bharati (former chief minister of the state of madhya pradesh) accused her political opponents in a public statement of using tantrik powers to inflict damage upon her. in fact, within a few days, the unlucky lady had lost her favorite uncle, hit the door of her car against her head and found her legs covered with wounds and blisters.

india tv, one of india's major hindi channels with national outreach, invited sanal edamaruku for a discussion on "tantrik power versus science". pandit surinder sharma, who claims to be the tantrik of top politicians and is well known from his tv shows, represented the other side. during the discussion, the tantrik showed a small human shape of wheat flour dough, laid a thread around it like a noose and tightened it. he claimed that he was able to kill any person he wanted within three minutes by using black magic. sanal challenged him to try and kill him.

the tantrik tried. he chanted his mantras (magic words): "om linga linga lina linga, kili kili ...." but his efforts did not show any impact on sanal — not after three minutes, and not after five. the time was extended and extended again. the original discussion program should have ended here, but the "breaking news" of the ongoing great tantra challenge was overrunning all program schedules.

now the tantrik changed his technique. he started sprinkling water on sanal and brandishing a knife in front of him. sometimes he moved the blade all over his body. sanal did not flinch. then he touched sanal's head with his hand, rubbing and rumpling up his hair, pressing his forehead, laying his hand over his eyes, pressing his fingers against his temples. when he pressed harder and harder, sanal reminded him that he was supposed to use black magic only, not forceful attacks to bring him down. the tantrik took a new run: water, knife, fingers, mantras. but sanal kept looking very healthy and even amused.

after nearly two hours, the anchor declared the tantrik's failure. the tantrik, unwilling to admit defeat, tried the excuse that a very strong god whom sanal might be worshipping obviously protected him. "no, i am an atheist," said sanal edamaruku. finally, the disgraced tantrik tried to save his face by claiming that there was a never-failing special black magic for ultimate destruction, which could, however, only been done at night. bad luck again, he did not get away with this, but was challenged to prove his claim this very night in another "breaking news" live program.

during the next three hours, india tv ran announcements for the great tantra challenge that called several hundred million people to their tv sets.

the encounter took place under the open night sky. the tantrik and his two assistants were kindling a fire and staring into the flames. sanal was in good humour. once the ultimate magic was invoked, there wouldn't be any way back, the tantrik warned. within two minutes, sanal would get crazy, and one minute later he would scream in pain and die. didn't he want to save his life before it was too late? sanal laughed, and the countdown begun. the tantriks chanted their "om linga linga linga linga, kili kili kili ...." followed by ever changing cascades of strange words and sounds. the speed increased hysterically. they threw all kinds of magic ingredients into the flames that produced changing colours, crackling and fizzling sounds and white smoke. while chanting, the tantrik came close to sanal, moved his hands in front of him and touched him, but was called back by the anchor. after the earlier covert attempts of the tantrik to use force against sanal, he was warned to keep distance and avoid touching sanal. but the tantrik "forgot" this rule again and again.

now the tantrik wrote sanal's name on a sheet of paper, tore it into small pieces, dipped them into a pot with boiling butter oil and threw them dramatically into the flames. nothing happened. singing and singing, he sprinkled water on sanal, mopped a bunch of peacock feathers over his head, threw mustard seed into the fire and other outlandish things more. sanal smiled, nothing happened, and time was running out. only seven more minutes before midnight, the tantrik decided to use his ultimate weapon: the clod of wheat flour dough. he kneaded it and powdered it with mysterious ingredients, then asked sanal to touch it. sanal did so, and the grand magic finale begun. the tantrik pierced blunt nails on the dough, then cut it wildly with a knife and threw them into the fire. that moment, sanal should have broken down. but he did not. he laughed. forty more seconds, counted the anchor, twenty, ten, five ... it's over!

millions of people must have uttered a sigh of relief in front their tvs. sanal was very much alive. tantra power had miserably failed. tantriks are creating such a scaring atmosphere that even people, who know that black magic has no base, can just break down out of fear, commented a scientist during the program. it needs enormous courage and confidence to challenge them by actually putting one's life at risk, he said. by doing so, sanal edamaruku has broken the spell, and has taken away much of the fear of those who witnessed his triumph.

in this night, one of the most dangerous and wide spread superstitions in india suffered a severe blow.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

snark of the week

jim henley @ unqualified offerings:

the following appeared this week in the new york times, the washington post, slate and the new yorker in a parallel universe ...

how i got it right: looking back at a time of justified opposition to a mad, violent enterprise

so many publications have expressed such overwhelming interest in the perspectives of those of us who opposed the iraq war when it had a chance of doing good that i have had to permit mutliple publication of this article in most of the nation's elite media venues — collecting, i am almost embarrassed to admit, a separate fee from each. everyone recognizes that the opinions of those of us who were right about iraq then are crucial to formulating sane, just policy now. it's a lot of pressure, so please forgive anything glib or short you read herein: between articles, interviews, think-tank panels and presentations before government agencies and policy organs i'm not permitted to mention, i'm a little frazzled.

on the bright side, and i can confirm that my experience has been similar to those of my fellow prophets, being the object of so much attention, being repeatedly quizzed by eager interlocutors on the same basic points, encourages one to distill one's thinking to its essence. as kenneth pollack asked me the other day, "what the fuck was so special about you, anyway?"

"for one thing," i said, "i am not sprawled on a sidewalk next the mcpherson square metro station, hoping to cadge enough quarters to enjoy the rare treat of laundering the vomit out of the only shirt i own, praying all the while that decent people do not recognize me beneath the matted beard and tangled hair."

"but my thigh hurts!" he said.

"shut up," i consoled him, "or i'll kick it again."

still he had a way of arriving at the essential question: "what the fuck was so special about me, anyway?" why did i have the sense to oppose the us conquest of iraq when so many of our great and good supported it? sometimes i think the other question is almost more interesting: what the fuck were those other people thinking? alas, answers to that one are hard to come by, since understandable shame has closed many mouths. so my own side of the story will have to suffice. why was i right and you, if you were a powerful politician or respected pundit in 2002-2003, wrong? some guesses follow.

  1. i'm really very bright. i don't like to brag, but my iq places me in the 99th percentile of americans. odds are, for instance, that i am smarter than you. and if i'm not, you're probably not that much smarter than i am. and even if you are, it would be unseemly for you to say so. what are you, stuck up or something? you aside, i'm certainly smarter than the president, or doug feith, or joe klein. i am seventeen times as smart as senator joseph lieberman. i am twenty-five hundred percent brighter than gop presidential candidate john mccain.

    my superior intelligence is a superficially plausible explanation, and i don't discount it, but two immediate objections suggest themselves. first, and less crucially, it simply raises another question: how did i get so smart in the first place? the shortest answer is, "because my parents were smart, and their parents were smart too." it's very hard to say why that matters: iq appears to be substantially heritable, but it's hard to disentangle the genetic component from the environmental nevertheless — i was reared by my parents, and not, as you know, by yours. if i'd been reared by yours i'd have gotten more toys as a kid. we were poor and you, somewhat spoiled.

    distressingly, there's no practical program for improvement there. "be smarter!" we might say to doug feith, "you'll make better policy!" but doug feith can't go back in time and be born to other people. but in light of the second objection to the "intelligence theory," that probably doesn't matter.

    second objection: you didn't have to be all that bright to oppose the iraq war in advance. heck, polls suggest that most americans were dubious about the idea until the war became obviously inevitable. real enthusiasm was confined to the elite media, the bipartisan defense-policy establishment and a bunch of republican quasi-intellectuals who had spent ten years casting about for different countries to have a war — any war — with. i mean, for crying out loud, at one point our rulers declared that saddam hussein might attack america with remote-controlled model planes. you didn't have to wait to bounce that one off the folks at your next mensa meeting to judge its likelihood. nor did you have to puzzle overlong, if someone tried to put that one by you, how much stock you should put in anything else that came out of their mouths.

    conclusion: my manifest intelligence was definitely not necessary to opposing the iraq war. it may not have been sufficient either.

  2. i wasn't born yesterday. i had heard of the middle east before september 12, 2001. i knew that many of the loudest advocates for war with iraq were so-called national-greatness conservatives who spent the 1990s arguing that war was good for the soul. i remembered elliott abrams and john poindexter and michael ledeen as the knaves and fools of iran-contra, and drew the appropriate conclusions about the bush administration wanting to employ them: it was an administration of knaves and fools.

    people will object that the project for a new american century had heard of the middle east before september 12, 2001 too, so just knowing some things wasn't enough. and hey, true, but if you read"warbloggers"back in 2001-2003, the thing that really jumped out was how new all this foreign-policy stuff was to them. people without much knowledge on the subject went looking for someone to soothe a very real hurt they felt in september 2001, and the first people they ran into were raving, nationalistic morons with a preexisting agenda, clustered around the wall street journal and the weekly standard.

  3. libertarianism. as a libertarian, i was primed to react skeptically to official pronouncements. "hayek doesn't stop at the water's edge!" i coined that one. not bad, huh? i could tell the difference between the government and the country. people who couldn't make this distinction could not rationally cope with the idea that american foreign policy was the largest driver of anti-american terrorism because it sounded to them too much like "the american people deserve to be victims of terrorism." i could see the self-interest of the officials pushing for war — how war would benefit their political party, their department within the government, enhance their own status at the expense of rivals. libertarianism made it clear how absurd the idealistic case was. supposedly, wise, firm and just american guidance would usher iraq into a new era of liberalism and comity. but none of that was going to work unless real american officials embedded in american political institutions were unusually selfless and astute, with a lofty and omniscient devotion to iraqi welfare. and, you know, they weren't going to be that.

finally-er, being neither republican nor democrat meant that i wasn't unduly impressed when even tom friedman, or even some clinton administration hack, assured everyone that the tinpot ruler of a two-bit despotism eight-thousand miles away would and could destroy us if we didn't get him first.

here there are a number of objections. all too many self-described libertarians supported the iraq war, with that noxious fervor for which we are notorious. these people were led astray by a combination of noble and base tendencies within libertarianism. saddam hussein was a vicious tyrant, after all, and some libertarians let a commendable hatred of tyrants overrule their common sense. some libertarians remembered that war involved guns, and lots of them, and figured it must be good. and many feared that if the united states did not go to war, it might make some hippie, somewhere, happy.

the more telling objection is that you didn't have to be a libertarian to figure out that going to war with iraq made even less sense than driving home to east egg drunk off your ass and angry at your spouse. any number of leftists and garden-variety liberals, and even a handful of conservatives, figured it out, each for different reasons. this objection has the disadvantage of being obviously true.

what all of us had in common is probably a simple recognition: war is a big deal. it isn't normal. it's not something to take up casually. any war you can describe as "a war of choice" is a crime. war feeds on and feeds the negative passions. it is to be shunned where possible and regretted when not. various hawks occasionally protested that "of course" they didn't enjoy war, but they were almost always lying. anyone who saw invading foreign lands and ruling other countries by force as extraordinary was forearmed against the lies and delusions of the time. it's a heavy burden, i'll admit. but the riches and fame make it all worthwhile.

Friday, March 21, 2008

quote of the day

born-again democrat john cole @ balloon juice:

my iraq war retrospective

i see that andrew sullivan was asked to list what he got wrong about iraq for the five year anniversary of the invasion, and since i was as big a war booster as anyone, i thought i would list what i got wrong:


and i don’t say that to provide people with an easy way to beat up on me, but i do sort of have to face facts. i was wrong about everything.

i was wrong about the doctrine of pre-emptive warfare.

i was wrong about iraq possessing wmd.

i was wrong about scott ritter and the inspections.

i was wrong about the un involvement in weapons inspections.

i was wrong about the containment sanctions.

i was wrong about the broader impact of the war on the middle east.

i was wrong about this making us more safe.

i was wrong about the number of troops needed to stabilize iraq.

i was wrong when i stated this administration had a clear plan for the aftermath.

i was wrong about securing the ammunition dumps.

i was wrong about the ease of bringing democracy to the middle east.

i was wrong about dissolving the iraqi army.

i was wrong about the looting being unimportant.

i was wrong that bush/cheney were competent.

i was wrong that we would be greeted as liberators.

i was wrong to make fun of the anti-war protestors.

i was wrong not to trust the dirty smelly hippies.

i mean, i could go down the list and continue on, but you get the point. i was wrong about EVERY. GOD. DAMNED. THING. it is amazing i could tie my shoes in 2001-2004. if you took all the wrongness i generated, put it together and compacted it and processed it, there would be enough concentrated stupid to fuel three hundred years of weekly standard journals. i am not sure how i snapped out of it, but i think abu ghraib and the negative impact of the insurgency did sober me up a bit.

war should always be an absolute last resort, not just another option. i will never make the same mistakes again.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

breaking, part deux: pot, kettle death-cage rematch!

christian-philosopher-king-in-chief george w. bush, speechifyin' before the dept. of homeland security, and indulging in a texas-sized dose of good ol'-fashion projection:

we're in a battle with evil men — i call them evil because if you murder the innocent to achieve a political objective, you're evil.

... unless, of course, you're someone engaged in "constructive chaos". biiiiig difference, folks. like huge.

Monday, March 03, 2008

finally, flowers


"think of the faces in afghanistan when the people were liberated, when they moved out in the streets and they started singing and flying kites and women went to school and people were able to function and other countries were able to start interacting with them. that's what would happen in iraq."
— defense secretary donald rumsfeld, 9/13/02

"as i told the president on january 10th, i think they will be greeted with sweets and flowers in the first months and simply have very, very little doubts that that is the case."
— iraqi exile kanan makiya, 3/17/03


baghdad — pomp and ceremony greeted iranian president mahmoud ahmadinejad on his arrival in iraq on sunday, the fanfare a stark contrast to the rushed and secretive visits of his bitter rival u.s. president george w. bush.

ahmadinejad held hands with iraqi president jalal talabani as they walked down a red carpet to the tune of their countries' national anthems, his visit the first by an iranian president since the two neighbours fought a ruinous war in the 1980s.

his warm reception, in which he was hugged and kissed by iraqi officials and presented with flowers by children, was iraq's first full state welcome for any leader since the u.s.-led invasion to topple saddam hussein in 2003.
reuters, 3/2/08