ain’t nothing moderate about it

So today I had a brief discussion with a friend who tried to convince me that Gov. Romney is a ‘moderate’ in regard to a woman’s right to choose to have a legal abortion. “He supports abortion in cases of rape and incest,” my friend said, “and if the mother’s life is in danger.”

Well, that’s just fucking great. To whom would a woman have to prove she’d been raped in order to end her pregnancy? A doctor? A court? An elected representative? What evidence would she have to present to prove she’d been raped? How long would it take for that person to decide whether or not the woman would be allowed to terminate her pregnancy? What if the accused rapist denies it was rape — would there have to be some sort of due process hearing before the woman would be given permission to end the pregnancy?

The very notion that a woman should have to request permission from a third party in order to terminate a pregnancy is insulting. For that woman to have to ask permission after having been sexually assaulted compounds the offense. To suggest that women have to be allowed to make a decision about their own bodies is to treat women as if they were children, incapable of making a rational decision about the state of their own bodies. Permission and allow aren’t words that should even enter into the discussion.

You want a moderate position on abortion? I’ll give you one: abortion should be rare, but legal and safe — a decision to be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor. There you go, that’s moderate. Anything that takes the decision away from the woman affected is NOT moderate. Anybody who tries to convince you that it IS moderate doesn’t understand the situation. And this guy? This guy doesn’t have the vaguest hint of a clue about the situation. Moderate, my ass.

in which i pass through farmland and become confused

Yesterday was probably the last day of ‘good’ weather I’ll see until Spring. I’m using the term ‘good’ deliberately and after some consideration, because in the Midwest near the end of October a day in the mid-70s is a treat — even if it’s windy and cloudy and looks like it might could decide to storm at any moment.

And what’s a guy to do on the last day of ‘good’ weather? Get on the bike, of course, and take off — preferably someplace new. Which is exactly what I did. I rode north on a bike trail out of Ankeny, Iowa into farmland. Open fields, corn, soybeans, barns, cows, and a whole lot of wind.

Long before this was a bike trail, it was part of the the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad line. Before that, the tracks belonged to the Des Moines & Minneapolis Railroad Company. And before that I believe dinosaurs roamed the earth. Now it’s part of the 20,000 miles of rail-to-trail conversions in the United States.

One reason these converted rail lines are popular with cyclists is because they tend to be relatively flat, smoothly paved, with gradual shifts in elevation. That makes for easy riding, of course. And this trail was no exception. Riding north was an absolute breeze. Literally. There was a 17 mph wind at our backs. Riding south was a lesson in wind resistance. Iowa has a lot of wind.

It also has a lot of sky, and fields that used to hold crops, and farm structures, and black dirt, and giant Tootsie Rolls made entirely of hay. I assume that’s hay. Or straw. Do people grow straw? What the hell IS straw? I’ve always assumed that whatever it is the farmers roll up into those massive pellets was something to feed cows. Or horses, maybe. Or, I don’t know, goats. Farm animals. Livestock. Although now I think of it, in the movies barns are always full of hay. Or straw. And some kid is constantly using a pitchfork to move it around from one part of the barn to another, though it’s never quite clear why. Maybe hay it’s like cat litter for horses. I don’t know.

Whatever those massive pellet rolls are for, I rather doubt they’re scattered around the fields for aesthetic purposes. But it would be very cool if they were.

Equally intriguing (to me, at any rate) is the old farm equipment that gets shunted into small paddocks or stashed away behind sheds and barns. I find myself wondering if the farmers think this equipment might somehow come in handy in the future. As spare parts, maybe, or material that can be scavenged and cobbled together with other odd bits of this and that to create…well, something like that blue pick-up bed/trailer-looking unit that’s been attached to what appears to be the framework for some sort of enhanced interrogation device. Clearly that thing, whatever it is, was constructed with a purpose. Unless the wind just picked it up and deposited there, like Auntie Em’s house.

Maybe this is the farmer’s equivalent of the urban dweller’s problem: what to do with that twenty-two pound, twelve-year-old computer monitor that nobody wants, and has been taking up space in the storage room since two computers ago?

It’s the same with old farm vehicles. What do you do with an old 1955 Ford pick-up? You park it out back near the even older 1950 International Harvester pick-up. I was really drawn to that old Ford. It must have been at least partially restored at some point in the last couple of decades, then put back out to pasture. It’s actually a very cool looking machine, and whoever chose that color to restore the truck had some taste.

Back when those two trucks were new, the D&M Railroad was already a hundred years old. A hundred and fifty years ago incredibly powerful locomotives pulled boxcars loaded with coal and grain across those same fields I was bicycling through. I find that oddly comforting. I like to think that in another hundred and fifty years that same band of now-public land will still be used by ordinary folks in some way.

Unless Mitt Romney gets elected. Then we’re just fucked. Go vote.

this ain’t your daddy’s navy

It was certainly the most quotable moment in last night’s debate. It was also the most telling moment in terms of Gov. Romney’s qualifications to be president. It was almost embarrassing to watch, but President Obama lost his patience took Romney to school.

Romney, it seems, wants the United States to build a bigger World War II-style Navy in order to fight against…who? The Navy of al-Qaeda? What Romney doesn’t understand is that a Navy built for second generation warfare is pretty much useless against a fourth generation warfare enemy like those we face in the modern world.

First generation war (1GW) was war between nation-states. It was warfare grounded in line and column tactics, both by land and naval forces; it involved bringing superior numbers into battle. 1GW was fought by troops in distinctive uniforms, which allowed them to tell friend from foe in close combat. It was contained warfare, fought in a limited battle-space. For the most part, military operations and wars were won by the side that brought the most men and/or ships to the battle-space.

That was true up until around the middle of the 19th century — the time of the American Civil War — when superior firepower generally replaced superior numbers as the critical factor for victory. Improvements in military technology created Second Generation Warfare (2GW). Troops and ships could attack each from a much greater distance, so the battle-space expanded. More effective weaponry (such as the Gatling gun seen below) allowed smaller units to be more effective. The side that could deliver the most munitions on target usually won the battle. There were always exceptions, of course (in 1GW as well), but no military commander would want to rely on exceptions to win a battle.

Both 1GW and 2GW depended on a fairly rigid top-down military hierarchy. Generals looked at maps, decided on lines of battle based on terrain and weather, gave orders about troop deployments, and the troops carried out those orders. Obedience and discipline by the troops was essential in order to synchronize troop movements and insure manpower and firepower would be in the right place at the right time. Individual initiative was frowned upon; it disrupted troop unity and synchronization.

Further improvements in military technology, however, stressed the advantages of speed and mobility over firepower, introducing Third Generation Warfare. Where 1GW depended on superior numbers and 2GW depended on superior firepower, 3GW depended on the ability of troop movements that surprised and confused the enemy. 1GW and 2GW relied on strategies that were essentially linear — bring up the troops or weapons, establish battle lines, then slug it out. 3GW, on the other hand, was non-linear. Highly mobile units could simply skip around or over battle lines and attack from unexpected directions.

The German’s Blitzkrieg during the Second World War was all about bypassing stationary targets and attacking where they weren’t expected. The use of helicopters in Korea and Vietnam did the same. 3GW is a war of maneuver rather than a war of territory. It requires generals to trust the initiative and decisions of local commanders, which has the effect of decentralizing the command structure. Instead of being given strict orders, in 3GW local commanders receive a general set of objectives and then decide how best to achieve them.

The wars the U.S. are involved in today, however, are Fourth Generation Wars (4GW). They are in many ways more sophisticated and, at the same time, more primitive. 4GW is no longer restricted to nation-states. Non-state participants (like al-Qaeda in the Muslim world or the FARC in Columbia) are actively engaged in 4GW. The goals of 4GW are essentially cultural rather than political, and therefore it’s highly decentralized. Small groups of combatants, often unaffiliated with any larger group, select objectives and attack them without any direction from a general in a uniform. Tactics considered ‘unacceptable’ to the modern rules of warfare are common and utilized effectively. In 4GW, the enemy is largely invisible until they strike.

The suicide vest, the IED, the hijacked commercial airliner — these are the tools of 4GW. Terror is a tactic, not just because of the loss of lives involved, but because of the disruption of ordinary life. The anxiety sparked by error in civilian populations and among the military in-country degrades our willingness to continue to fight.

Most importantly, the enemy in 4GW isn’t hampered by political realities. In the U.S. the political reality is the Commander-in-Chief needs to be able to give the electorate a timetable for success. 4GW combatants are cultural warriors, and they operate on God’s time. If the U.S. is in Afghanistan for another decade, the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban can carry on fighting their low-intensity war secure in the knowledge that at some point we’ll leave — and they’ll win.

Gov. Romney is locked into an out-moded mindset; he still thinks the biggest military is the best military. He wants to create a 2GW Navy to fight in a 4GW world. When he complains that the U.S. no longer has a military capable of fighting two large scale WWII-style land wars on two separate continents, he fails to comprehend that the world no longer fights those type of wars.

Sadly, what Romney and President Obama both fail to understand is that 4GW has an inescapable moral component. When members of the Taliban deliberately shoot a 14 year old girl in the head for advocating education for girls, people are appalled — but because the Taliban is a decentralized religious movement consisting of a shifting array of participants, the blame gets spread out and diffused. When a Predator drone fires a missile and accidentally kills members of a wedding party, it’s clear the act was committed by the United States and  blame attaches squarely firmly to the U.S. When U.S. Marines are photographed urinating on the corpses of suspected Afghan insurgents, they are seen as representing the United States, whereas if a shadowy cell claiming some loose affiliation with al-Qaeda of Yemen throws acid in the face of a woman for refusing to wear the hijab, they’re not necessarily seen as representing anybody in specific.

Decentralization not only shifts the command structure, it diffuses responsibility for atrocities. For a modern state military force to succeed against a violent non-state participant, it’s necessary to redefine the term ‘success.’ An army or navy can’t root out the cultural ideas of the enemy; they can only offer support for alternative ideas and perhaps give those ideas fertile soil in which to grow.

substance is secondary

Here’s the problem: ‘energy exploration’ instead of drilling for oil; ‘death tax’ instead of inheritance tax; ‘job creators’ rather than the richest two percent; ‘healthy forests’ and not logging.

energy exploration

Beginning in the 1990s, Republicans discovered that words have power and can shape emotion. Change the words describing a thing, and you can change how a person feels about that thing. You want to frighten people about health care reform? Refer to it as a ‘government takeover of health care’ and start talking about ‘death panels.’

frank luntz

There was nothing new about that idea. Politicians and preachers have been using that trick since the glory days of Greece. What was new was that Republican strategists (and most notably Frank Luntz) began to stress the important of playing on emotion over the formulation of policy. Symbolism began to trump ideas, scandal replaced debate over political positions. Instead of identifying weaknesses in the policies of Democrats, Republicans began using emotional arguments to frighten voters and turn them against their opponents. Even the smallest gesture can be re-interpreted this way; let’s not forget how the Obamas’ post-inaugural speech knuckle dap was turned into a ‘terrorist fist jab.’

terrorist fist jab

The Mitt Romney presidential campaign is the natural result of this approach to politics. He has essentially abandoned any attempt to formulate realistic domestic or foreign policies, opting instead to build a campaign around a few phrases, a handful of buzzwords, and the dissemination of scandal. His policies on jobs revolve around a deliberate misinterpretation of the statement “you didn’t build that.” His foreign policy is the president didn’t use the word ‘terrorism’ to describe the assault on the consulate compound in Benghazi. When that attack was raised during the last presidential debate, Romney didn’t didn’t discuss what sort of security might be appropriate for Benghazi, he was only interested in what words Obama used on what day. Everything is interpreted through a lens attuned to scandal, fear-mongering, and dog-whistle racism.

And hey, it’s working. Frank Luntz is right when he says most people make decisions primarily on emotion, not on intellect. Tonight, when you watch the debate, Romney will talk about being ‘resolute’ and ‘being a staunch friend to Israel’ and ‘standing up to Iran’ and Obama’s mythical ‘apology tour.’ He’ll use a lot of strong words, a lot of emotional words, and almost nothing of substance. He’ll be more concerned with looking and sounding presidential than in offering a coherent view of how the United States should act in the world as it is today. In the world of modern Republicanism, substance is secondary.

eat a cookie

Like a lot of you folks, I was unaware this year, 2012, is the 100th anniversary of Oreo Cookies. I only became aware of it on June 25th, when Nabisco took what turned out to be a controversial step forward. On that day, in celebration of Gay Pride Month, they released this advert:

The ad, of course, delighted an awful lot of gay and gay-friendly straight folks. It was fun and funny, clever without being twee, and expressed a political and social position. That’s a lot to include in a simple advertisement.

Predictably, it caused an uproar among religious conservatives and homophobes. While liberals applauded, conservatives vowed to boycott Oreos specifically and Nabisco products in general. They swore would give their custom to Hydrox cookies — apparently unaware that Hydrox had gone out of business. It was a classic temper tantrum.

Kraft Foods, which makes Oreo cookies, rightly refused to back down. They released the following statement: “Kraft Foods has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. We feel the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values.”

What is just as cool — and what has sadly been overlooked — is that for the next 100 days Oreo celebrated their centennial anniversary by releasing an interesting new advert each day, commemorating some event. Here’s a sample:

The ad campaign was known as The Daily Twist. They used multiple agencies and a dedicated team of four designers to come up with these clever ads, and sadly not nearly enough people saw them.

So here’s your chance to make up for that. Go buy some Oreos. Support the company. Remind them that we appreciate their willingness to do what’s right instead of what’s safe. Eat some cookies in a good cause.

all gothic and syrupy

I’ve occasionally mentioned Utata in this blog. I’ve talked about how the group has helped to shape the sort of photographs I shoot, and I’ve mentioned some of the projects that grow out of Utata (like the Thursday Walks, and Iron Photographer, and our bi-annual big projects).

But I haven’t said very much about the people I get to work with, and that’s a shame because those people are completely fucking brilliant and altogether charming. I was in a state of Off-the-Intertubes recently, and when I returned I discovered these two comments in the Super-Secret Utata Staff Lounge:

“I’m in the middle of making some bramble whisky. I may strain it through an old sock instead of the more conventional muslin cloth.”

“I’m making bramble whisky too, but I must be doing something wrong as my recipe doesn’t include old socks.”

First, I should probably note that I am occasionally referred to in Utata as ‘Old Sock’ (don’t ask; it’s not a long story, but it’s a story that makes almost no sense at all). Much more important is the bramble whisky. Now, I’m familiar with brambles and blackberries, and I’ve been rather intimate with various forms of whisky — but bramble whisky? Never heard of it. And I admitted as much, which sparked this conversation:

“I highly recommend bramble booze (or sloe, elderberry, rosehip, random non-deadly-nightshade hedgerow fruit). You can take the absolute dog-roughest bathtub poitín and turn it into a magical elixir for the price of a pound of sugar and a walk in the countryside.”

“Oh how I miss sloe gin. I hate regular gin, but sloe gin tastes like something from Tolkien.”

“Following last year’s damson glut, I have a ridiculously large amount of damson gin in the cupboard if anyone is desperate…”

“You can flavour gin with quinces – the little decorative ones as well as the bigger eating ones. I have no idea if they’re any more easy to find in the US. It goes a lovely pink colour and tastes of … well … to me it tastes a bit like the perfume that my grandmother used to wear but I’m not sure that helps anybody else.”

“I made some quince brandy last year. Best described as ‘interesting’.”

“I think you need to beat those quinces up a bit. I chopped and slightly cooked mine before boozing them. Nearly killed an electric chopper with them too … they were just fractionally harder than diamonds.”

From bramble whisky to sloe gin to damson gin to quince brandy. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to discover I have some moonshiners in the South Carolina branch of the family, but to my knowledge none of my kin has created anything that sounds quite so romantic or Jane Austen-ish as quince brandy.

David Wilkinson’s quince brandy (photo by David his ownself)

Of course, I developed a strange, immediate desire to make my own bramble whisky, or something like it. So I asked for a recipe.

“Use a recipe depending on your fruit and liquor, specific ratios of fruit, booze sugar are needed, as Sam indicated this works best with hard fruits even if they’re supposedly soft fruits like cherries. If you want to go with folklore and hazy memories then here’s my description. Sit in a comfortable chair and listen to the radio. I always used a needle to prick them not a fork, and it’s been years, but the way I remember doing it with my Mamgu is to fill your empty bottle one third with the washed and pricked fruit, then pour fine granulated sugar on top till it comes about an inch above the fruit. Then we’d pour over the booze until the bottle was about four fifths full. The screw in the cork or the lid, and shake it violently.Put it in a cold dark pantry filled with jars of home-made chutney and marmalade. Shake it daily for a week or two, then once a week until shortly before Christmas. By then it should be all gothic and syrupy. Decant it and drink it from the tiny little glasses that you can’t buy new anywhere but little old ladies have millions so you’ll probably find some in Goodwill.”

There was some debate about the best way to prepare the fruit. One school of thought advocated a certain level of thuggery (“You do need to bash them up a bit”). Another seemed more appropriate to scaring off vampires (“Pin-pricking is too tedious – I take a sharp knife and cut a small cross into each damson”). But this response has settled me firmly in the pin-pricking school:

“Pricking them all over with a pin, while sitting in a comfy chair and listening to the radio (use BBC iplayer for this, they have a wacky dramatisation of Dracula this week) is the most important part. Your fingertips get stained an olive-ish purple and end up smelling like mossy hedgerows.”

And there you have it. Everything you’d ever want to know about preparing your own bramble whisky — from fruit-pricking instructions to the general ambience in which it should be prepared to the proper stemware in which it should be served.

And there you also have a brief introduction to the sort of people who staff Utata. Smart, funny, and infinitely helpful. That I get to work with these people makes me feel all gothic and syrupy.


Today the House Oversight for Government Reform Committee is holding a hearing on the September 11th attack on the temporary US consular compound in Benghazi. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa is expected to be severely critical of the State Department’s decision not to increase the number of security personnel, as requested by some of the security staff.

That sounds like a reasonable criticism, given what happened as a result of the attack. Four deaths, including the Ambassador to Libya. The total destruction of the compound and its furnishings and equipment. The ransacking of intelligence documents that couldn’t be destroyed in time. It was, by all accounts, a disaster. Chairman Issa calls it the result of “inadequate security.”

Benghazi assault (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In the hearing today, we probably won’t hear Issa address some of the more inconvenient facts. He probably won’t mention the fact that those security personnel would have been stationed in Tripoli, not in Benghazi — so their presence wouldn’t have had any effect on the situation. Nor are we likely to hear that one of the reasons the request for additional security personnel was denied was budgetary. That’s significant because since President Obama assumed his office, Congressional Republicans (including Darrell Issa) have consistently voted to reduce the budgets of the State Department in general and embassy security in particular.

In fiscal year 2011, House Republicans reduced the president’s budget request for the two agencies that provide security for the State Department by US$127.5 million. For the current fiscal year, they cut the budget for embassy security by $330 million. That’s almost half a billion dollars over the last two years.

It takes a lot of balls to complain about the lack of embassy and consulate security when you’ve spent the last few years reducing the funding for embassy and consulate security.

It’s also important to keep this event in context. An estimated 120 attackers armed with small arms, RPGs and mortars launched a coordinated surprise assault on a temporary consulate building that was only partially equipped with bulletproof windows and reinforced doors — a structure protected by only a handful of security personnel. Four American personnel were killed. Three days later 15 well-armed attackers launched a coordinated surprise assault on Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, the largest and most secure military base in that country, housing nearly 30,000 coalition troops and contractors. During the four hour firefight, two US Marines were killed and aircraft valued at $200 million were destroyed.

Surprise is an effective combat tactic. If Congressional Republicans are going to blame “inadequate security” for the deaths and damage resulting from a surprise attack by 120 insurgents on a lightly-protected soft target like a temporary compound, then don’t they have to also claim inadequate security for the death and damage done during a surprise attack by 15 insurgents on the most secure military base in all of Afghanistan? Are they going to claim the attack on Camp Bastion could have been prevented if they’d had an extra dozen security personnel?

? Chairman Darrell Issa

What happened in Beghazi was tragic. Nobody would claim otherwise. Congress has the right — even the duty — to investigate how that tragedy unfolded. It would be nice, though, if Chairman Issa was sincere enough to ask if budgetary cuts he supported played a part in the tragedy. I doubt he will.

I’m also willing to bet that Issa will continue to vote to reduce the budget of the State Department by hundreds of millions. And that he’ll vote to give military contractors another $200 million to replace those destroyed aircraft.

Congressman Issa is correct when he blames the event in Benghazi on inadequacy. But it wasn’t just the security that was inadequate; it was the competency of Members of Congress like Darrell Issa.

my favorite interruption

It’s an interruption of light. That’s all it is. But it fascinates me — visually, conceptually, artistically, emotionally. Most photographers look for good light; I look for good shadow.

A tree in this small alley-turned-courtyard obstructed the sunlight falling directly on the burnt sienna wall, resulting in a dark, self-similar shape of that tree. We’re able to see that tree because light within a certain spectrum falls on it; we see its shadow because light is prevented from falling on the wall. A shadow is the only thing we see because of the absence of light.

The term ‘shadow’ comes from Old English, the language spoken by Anglo-Saxons between the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century. It shares the same linguistic root as ‘shade’: sceadu, which referred to a place protected from glare and heat. ‘Shadow’ itself, however, comes from a somewhat later and more narrowly defined derivation of the term: sceadwian, which referred to the act of creating a small bit of shade (most beautifully defined by one etymologist as ‘to protect as with a covering wing’).

Though shade and shadow are essentially the same phenomenon, we experience them as very different beasts. We tend to treat shade as a form of shelter; we generally see shadow as only the reverse projection of an object. And that’s a shame, because when you raise an awning to shelter you from the sun, you’re using a shadow to create shade. You are, in effect, mimicking a bird tucking its head under its wing. If you can’t see the delicate loveliness in that, there’s no hope for you at all, at all.

I entered this alleyway/courtyard seeking shade. In it, I found a shadow. And I was content.