Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What sinked the Copenhagen Climate summit

According to Mark Lynas, the Chinese delegation torpedoed a better climate deal.

"...The truth is this: a better deal was blocked by powerful nations in the developing world, in particular China. Several of those present in the room as heads of state from more than 20 countries battled it out late into the final night confirm this essential truth, and that Chinese attitudes and behaviour were at times deeply shocking.

"Consider that the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, did not deign to attend the heads of state meeting, instead sending a middle-ranking official to sit at the table with Obama, Merkel, Sarkozy, Australia's Kevin Rudd and leaders from Grenada, Ethiopia, Maldives, Brazil, Mexico and others.

"The Chinese have a reputation for being highly status-conscious. There is little doubt that this was a calculated diplomatic slight, aimed, perhaps, at the American president. Instead, all these world leaders, Obama included, were forced to wait as the Chinese delegate went to consult his superiors, or alternatively to attend separate bilaterals with the Chinese premier as he held court in a nearby luxury hotel.

"I was attached to one of the delegations whose head of government attended nearly all the top-level negotiations among leaders and, as senior adviser, I had the opportunity to be present in the room where the intense top-level negotiations took place. Moreover, what took place in the heads of state meeting room and other parallel negotiations is confirmed by multiple high-level sources."

A few things to note. A Senior Adviser would keep such negotiations confidential, unless asked not to by his advisees. We're led to understand that the US Executive Branch wanted stricter emissions limits, and did not get that. That tidbit should make it easier for Congress to ratify this and future other climate deals.

It is also apparent that Obama's advisers are not too bent on shrouding him in the mystic halo of Power that past Presidents have craved. It's as if they see out times as the renewed Age of Reason, past the Shock and Awe Heroic Age of George Bush. Once the image of the Mortal President takes hold, however, we might live to regret this.

The meaning of Copenhagen in terms of the new global balance of power did not escape to Tom Brookes and Tim Nuthall of The European Climate Foundation: "Will a new world order result from the chaos in Copenhagen? The jury is out".

The 'Meat' on Pakistan

"Why does Pakistan hate us" - another Slate story with Chris Hitches at his best:

"Give credit to the vice president: He really does enjoy politics and "can't see a room without working it," as a colleague of mine half-admiringly remarked last Wednesday morning. We were waiting to enter the studio and comment after Biden had finished his interview with the Scarborough/Brzezinski team, in which the main topic was Afghanistan. Exiting, he chose to stop and talk to each of us. Not wanting to waste a chance to be a bore on the subject, I asked him why he had mentioned India only once in the course of his remarks. Right away Biden managed the trick—several good politicians have mastered this—of reacting as if the question had been his own idea. Of course, he said, it was vexing that Pakistan preferred to keep its best troops on the border with India (our friend) rather than redeploying them to FATA—the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas—where they could be fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida (our enemy). My flesh was pressed, and it was on to the next...."

The actual meat of the story is to be found further down:

"This, then, is why the Pakistani elite hates the United States. It hates it because it is dependent on it and is still being bought by it. It is a dislike that is also a form of self-hatred of the sort that often develops between client states and their paymasters. (You can often sense the same resentment in the Egyptian establishment, and sometimes among Israeli right-wingers, as well.) By way of overcompensation for their abject status as recipients of the American dole, such groups often make a big deal of flourishing their few remaining rags of pride. The safest outlet for this in the Pakistani case is an official culture that makes pious noises about Islamic solidarity while keeping the other hand extended for the next subsidy. Pakistani military officers now strike attitudes in public as if they were defending their national independence rather than trying to prolong their rule as a caste and to extend it across the border of their luckless Afghan neighbor.

"This is, and always was, a sick relationship, and it is now becoming dangerously diseased..."

The Gentleman from New York

The Gentleman from New York
Daniel Patrick Moyniham - a biography
Geoffrey Hobson
Houghton Mifflin, 2000

I'd like to signal you a good biography of Daniel Patrick Moyniham that describes the fervor of the 1970s which turned a number of liberals into neocons - Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Richard Perle. Who thought the most ardent critics of liberalism were fallen angels. (Or were they the real liberals?)

Moynihan had his own ideological tribulations, as a Johnson democrat working for Nixon, then as a conservative Democrat Senator upset with Carter, then as the main Senate foe of Reagan, then as the main Democrat bent on sinking Hillary Care.

Incidentally, Moynihan was immersed in problems of education, and while at Harvard he ran with Thomas Pettigrew a seminar on the celebrated Coleman report. That must have been quite a seminar... I've found a good cursory description of it here (p. 352) by Geoffrey Hobson, same as the author of the Moynihan biography.

Freedom’s Mr. Moneybags

A Gift of Freedom - How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America
By John J. Miller

From a 2005 National Review interview with John J. Miller, author of "Gift of Freedom", some interesting tidbits about John M. Olin, the famed conservative Mecena. The interview is titled Freedom’s Mr. Moneybags.

"... I’ll suggest that without the John M. Olin Foundation, Allan Bloom might not have written The Closing of the American Mind, the best-selling book that deeply influenced the way people think about the entrenchment of cultural relativism in the modern academy. As it happened, the foundation gave Bloom a small grant that allowed him to write an article for National Review, which was published in 1982. Bloom’s friend Saul Bellow encouraged him to turn the article into a book, which became this amazing runaway success, both critically and commercially. Throughout it all, the John M. Olin Foundation provided Bloom with steady financial support.

"Another example might be Francis Fukuyama, best known for his “End of History” thesis. It was first delivered as a lecture at the Olin Center at the University of Chicago, and then it was published as an article in The National Interest, a foreign-policy journal that was created with Olin dollars. Frank is one of the smartest guys around, and he’d probably be successful no matter what, but the John M. Olin Foundation certainly played a key role in creating the conditions for this particular success. Incidentally, one of Fukuyama’s most prominent critics, Samuel Huntington, ran his own John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard. It’s interesting to observe that the most provocative and fascinating debate on foreign policy after the Cold War — Fukuyama vs. Huntington — didn’t occur between Left and Right, but between two men who may reasonably be described as conservatives, and both of them beneficiaries of the John M. Olin Foundation."

From the same interview, a nicely fitting quote from Oscar Wilde: "Philanthropy seems to have become simply the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow creatures."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Niebuhr's paraphrasing of the Royal Road...

'... A crown without a cross, a triumph without a battle'
(The Constant Dialogue, p. 94)

American and Eurpean Protestants in 1948

A Time article on Reinhold Niebuhr from 1948 suggests, not less, "that Americans often see European Protestants as spending 'too much time thinking about God and Scripture [and] not enough helping their neighbor', while Europeans see American Protestants as 'simple minded do-gooders with a busy-bee, "social worker" concept of religion".

(Martil Halliwell, Reinhold Niebuhr, The Constant Dialogue, p.93)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Debating the Advanced Placement high school program

The New York Times ran a public debate on the Advanced Placement (AP) high school class program. Six specialists were invited to comment on last April's Thomas B. Fordham foundation survey of AP teachers, authored by Ann Duffett and Steve Farkas, which had found that AP class attendance has spiked up in the past years while managing to keep a high academic level. The report indicated that the number of high school students who took one or more AP class had increased from 2002 to 2007 by a remarkable 45%, from 1.1 to 1.6 million.

As usual, the reader's comments are more interesting than the expert opinions. But look at the blackboard picture, pasted from the NYT debate lead page. Quiz: what math detail is wrong?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Can you teach Social Justice...

... if you shun subject matter content? This is what Joanne Jacobs and also Robert Pondiscio are asking, regarding the recent controversy at University of Minnesota’s Education school which pits the American Dream against Social Justice as the 'right' reductionist propositions. The U of M's Teacher Education Redesign Initiative's Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group had submitted its report, where we read:

"The story of the United States is often told in terms of the American Dream. Historian James Truslow Adams is thought to have coined the phrase 'American Dream' in 1931, in his book, The Epic of America. Adams wrote that the American Dream is:

'...That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability and achievement ...It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.'

The Education Redesign report continues:

"Future teachers will understand that despite an ideal about what is considered common culture in the United States, that many groups are typically not included within this celebrated cultural identity and more often than not, many students with multi-generational histories in the United States are routinely perceived to be new immigrants or foreign. That such exclusion is frequently a result of dissimilarities in power and influence."

I can't help but notice that the group titulature, Teacher Education Redesign, sounds awfully close to Teacher Reeducation. If the U of M Education School would be open for some mid XXth Century Eastern European History, with its Reeducation Brigades imposed at the point of bayonets, they would understand why this might be a problem.

Get your history on, or we're condemned to repeat it, right? King Philip's War, the Native American genocide, the French and Indian War, the plight of Blacks and Native Americans in the Revolutionary War, 1812, the conquest of Mexico, the Civil War, the Progressive Era post Reconstruction. All good places to visit. All good excuses to put restless teacher minds to use, especially since these subjects are cursively dismissed in grade and middle schools around the country. Right?

But that would have broken a tenet of school education - that history and content matter are imposing and oppressive. Why bother understanding things of old. Instead, the Education Redesign group will spoon feed future teachers to "make use" in their analysis of the "myth of meritocracy in the United States", the history of white racism "with special focus on current colorblind ideology", and the "history of demands for assimilation to white, middle-class, Christian meanings and values".

Curious Social Justice, this one, pitted against meritocracy. Forget that cultural identity and individual differences are hollow if still rested on the old creed of innate limitations. And forget the deeply religious XXth Century American who said:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream...

Reinhold Niebuhr, John Dewey and the constant dialogue

The Constant Dialogue. Reinhold Niebuhr & the American Intellectual Culture.
By Martin Halliwell. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

I admit to come to this with a certain interest in mind, to understand how John Dewey was seen in his time. John Dewey's most basic idea is that education is the key to understanding and the most important outlet of Philosophy. How did the pragmatism of a most careful intellectual, John Dewey, end up being used as an excuse for remaking elementary education in a child-centric, child-initiated image, to the result that intellectualism was thoroughly purged out of the class rooms. For the painful saga of John Dewey and child centered education, see Diane Ravitch's brilliant history of American schools - Left Back.

Dewey is a generation older than Niebuhr, and both can be described at the time of the events surrounding 1929 as Socialists. Both are upset with Roosevelt's New Deal policies, judging them ad hoc and unprincipled (The Constant Dialogue, p. 72). Niebuhr attacks John Dewey for his atheism; from Niebuhr's perspective, Dewey's pragmatism is at odds with the need of individuals for a bit of transcendence. It could also be argued, says Halliwell (p. 57), that Dewey did not pay attention to the nuances of religious thought and that Niebuhr's awareness of science lacked any depth.

And here is a nice quote from Dewey (p. 65). I seem to be unstable, chameleon-like, yielding one after another to many diverse and even incompatible influences; struggling to assimilate something from each yet striving to carry it forward in a way that is logically consistent with what has been learned from its predecessors.

From Halliwell's perspective, Niebuhr does not manage to dent Dewey's surface. I was hoping I would get a Niebuhr reaction to Dewey's support of Lenin's revolution, and Dewey's excitement with progressive education in the USSR up until its reversal in Stalin's time at the beginning the 1930's. To his credit, Dewey became very critical of communism after the episode. But the question is why did it take him so long to come around, when he had earlier been confronted by educators like Michael Demiashkevich, the brilliant Russian emigre who had been an education official in the starting days of the Revolution. Dewey's minions had been savaging Demiashkevich, as recounted in Ravitch's Left Back. For Dewey was not too picky choosing his collaborators.

And I was also hoping to a Niebuhr reaction to the Scopes trial. Luckily, on the jacket of Halliwell's edition I find a text by Paul K. Conkin which I've heard is quite good, When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The irony...

... of Barack Obama is that he's persuaded himself to be a War President just as he was preparing to give his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. The irony of George Bush is that he wasn't embarrassed to keep as trophy the gun of Saddam Hussein whom he refused to duel.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Doubt (2008)

Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Phylip Seymor Hoffman, Amy Adams, Meryl Streep

The St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Bronx and its school. Father Flynn is a revered figure in the community and among the school children. It's 1964 and the Father sermons about President Kennedy's assassination the year before. He talks about people bound together in hopelessness and despair. Imagine now you are alone in your hopelessness, he says. Nobody outside of you understands what you are going through. And, he says, now imagine someone else is alone in their despair. Can you find love and understanding in your heart for that someone else?

Sister Aloysius, the school Principal, however, is an acute judge of character. And she will not let herself be fooled by Father Flynn. She has seen him innocently touch a boy's hand. She suspects he has an affinity for young boys.

Father Flynn instructs the boys in basketball, how to keep the feet steady for a good shot. He loves the kids, and the kids feel great around him. A school girl confides to him she's in love with a class mate. Has she told him yet? No, she's too shy. What are you waiting for, he asks? Father Flynn is chiding a young boy for his dirty nails. Look at my nails, he says. Aren't they well trimmed? A boy asks him, what do you do when all the girls you've invited to dance have refused? Father Flynn responds: That's when you become a priest.

Sister James is a young teacher. Her eight graders learn addition for fractions, and common denominators. They learn history as well. What did President Roosevelt mean when he said "All we have to fear is fear itself"? And what did Patrick Henry famously say in the Continental Congress?

The young teacher lovingly gives it all in her class. But sometimes she has trouble keeping the class in check. Kids sometimes run around behind her back, and don't always listen to her. Sister Aloysius drops by to check if all things are in order. The kids are not supposed to use ball point pens, it ruins their hand writing. And kids should be immediately sent to her Principal office if they make trouble. That's what the office is for.

Sister Aloysius is concerned kids are falling behind academically. She demands to have the Pope's picture hanging in the front of class. "But it's the wrong Pope", the teacher says. No matter. If you look in the Pope's picture hanging on the wall, the Sister Aloysius responds, you can see in the reflection what kids are doing behind your back in class. It's a good tip for the teacher.

But Sister Aloysius is not that strict. The nuns are in convent for dinner. Sister Veronica is 80 years old, and is almost going blind. Sister Aloysius is quite concerned the priests will find out the old nun's eyes are failing, and will force her out to a retirement home, where she can't be helped anymore.

The phone rings in the middle of Sister James' class. Father Flynn asks to have his altar boy, Donald, excused from class, to join him in the Sacristy. When Donald later returns, he is visibly upset. What happened in the Sacristy?

The teacher is concerned, and has her suspicions. She's also seen Father Flynn return a jacket to Donald's locker. She voices her concern to the Principal, Sister Aloysius. It's the confirmation of Sister Aloysius's fears. She may have no proof, just a suspicion, but it's her duty to confront Father Flynn. She will not back down on this.


That is a nice setup, as far as it goes. From there on, the movie stops being as subtle. That's too bad. A chance missed. It's not that Father Flynn may have had an improper relationship with his altar boy. Or may not have had. It's not that Sister Aloysius has a duty to put to rest her suspicions, and should face the reality that she may never find out what really happened. If something happened. It's not that Catholic priests are stereotyped as molesters. And it's not that 1960's era Catholic Schools are stereotyped as medieval institutions, bent on forcing poor kids to learn pesky math and history.

Maybe the movie lays it out how it happened. If it happened. The Doubt is there, if it did. So I won't tell you how the story meets its end. Make your own end, if you will. And make it so that Father Flynn is in the end promoted to a larger church and school.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"Pedagogy of the Oppressed" - Paulo Freire

"This is truly revolutionary pedagogy", states the 1970's book edition subtitle.

Paulo Freire (1929-1997) taught history and philosophy of education at the University of Recife, in Brazil. His experiments on teaching illiterates in Recife led him to develop a pedagogical method, widely used by the Catholic Church and other groups in literacy campaigns throughout the North East of Brazil. In 1964, a military coup in Brazil put an end to the Freire-inspired literacy campaigns, and imprisoned the philosopher for 70 days as a traitor.

Upon release, Freire was encouraged to leave his country. He moved briefly to Bolivia, then to Chile, where in 1967 he published his first book, Education as the Practice of Freedom. In 1969 he published Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was translated to English in 1970 as a best seller.

Harvard University invited Freire as a Visiting Professor in 1969, and a year later Freire moved to Geneva, Switzerland, as a special education adviser to the World Council of Churches. Freire was unable to publish his work in his native country for a long while - not until 1974, when a gradual democratization process began in the country under President Ernesto Geisel. Freire was able to return to Brazil in 1980, where in 1988 he was appointed Secretary of Education for Sao Paulo.

Reading Freire's magnum opus, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is an interesting experience. Freire's political views are intertwined with his philosophy of education. If one wonders which came to model the other, his political theory or his theory of education - the answer is found in the way material is ordered within the text. Freire's book starts in the 1st Chapter with a discussion of the class struggle ideology, then moving on in Chapter 2 to a philosophical dissection of pedagogy.

But what formed Freire's view of the class struggle in the 1960's Brazil? What specific examples of oppression did he see? Were them so obvious that they could go unmentioned to his readers? For there is no testimony to oppression acts in the text, and we are left to assume oppression as an axiom. Oppressed peasants may have been illiterate. But if someone in Freire's position as a theoretician of revolution does not describe the oppression acts, they might well be lost to history. We are left to assume a split-class Brazilian society without social bonds and mechanisms serving as glue to hold itself together, without enough levers of freedom to balance the imposition of the haves over the have nots.

Freire's view is that pedagogy should foremost heal oppression.

The central problem is this
, he writes: How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be "hosts" of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization [p. 33].

Are the illiterate peasants and slum city dwellers better served by a general education for literacy - which lets them draw their own conclusion about class emancipation? Or should their teacher take the automatic next steps for them? The paradigm of pedagogy is that it imparts knowledge, which brings equality, and equality brings emancipation, and emancipation is a political instrument. Freire sees pedagogy directly as emancipation.

As a consequence, more important than the contents of what is taught in class - in Freire's view - is how content is taught. If teachers impart knowledge, "filling" the students with the contents of their narration, then they become oppressors to the students. To Freire it is more important that students learn to free themselves from coercion, even at the expense of learning less material. This is where Freire in effect stands in the line of the older pedagogical philosophies of the pragmatist John Dewey and of the romantic Jean-Jacques Rouseeau.

One could reply to Freire that, as a matter of pedagogy, even coercion itself has less to do with the teaching style and more with the content matter. The most perfectly open and interactive class can still be a venue for political indoctrination - think of history classes which attend to national myths rather than to historic facts.

But the narrator-teacher, to Freire, is the purveyor of a banking system pedagogy, where the teacher deposits knowledge in the student, with the expectation that the student will be able cash it out unchanged. This is a very black-and-white view of the teacher-student relation. Let's go through the list of the narrator-teacher practices, as listed by Freire, which in his view mirror oppressive society as a whole: [p. 59]

a. The teacher teaches and the students are taught. Nothing controversial here.

b. The teacher knows everything and the students know nothing. This is a false antithesis. The students build on earlier knowledge. The teacher may know everything about the subject being taught that very day, but may need to glean from the students what is the most effective way to convey it - that is, in effect, what the teacher needs to learn from the student.

c. The teacher thinks and the students are thought about. The teacher, instead, teaches students how to think.

d. The teacher talks and the students listen - meekly. That is unless of course students are asked to talk and the teacher listens.

e. The teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined. True, but the subtlety lies in how the students are disciplined.

f. The teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply. The teacher knows the destination of the conversation, even if multiple paths may lead there.

g. The teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher. It remains unexplained what is meant by the teacher's act. But the implication is that the teacher is acting fake.

h. The teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it. In fact, the school, or the education department choose the curriculum content. The students are not yet qualified to be consulted on this point.

i. The teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his own professional authority, which he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students. But freedom without reflection is freedom of poor quality. True freedom, in Hegelian sense, comes from the integration of the individual within social institutions, and that integration requires knowledge.

j. The teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects. Students are the subject, teaching is about them not about the teacher.

In a reflection of old philosophical debates about the primacy of the world of things over the world of ideas, Freire writes [p. 63]:

Yet only through communication can human life hold meaning. The teacher's thinking is authenticated only by the authenticity of the student's thinking. The teacher cannot think for his students, nor can he impose his thought on them. Authentic thinking, thinking that is concerned about reality, does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication. If it is true that thought has meaning only when generated by action upon the world, the subordination of students to teachers becomes impossible.

In other words, Freire takes the position that abstract ideas cannot be taught. He does not clarify whether he actually believes abstract ideas really to exist; he would clearly make interesting conversation to Socrates, to whom the unseen ivory-tower ideas were the only immutable truths, opposed to the touchable but changeable things which surround us.

There is a funny paragraph about a group of intellectuals discussing the anthropological concept of culture [p. 69]:

In the midst of the discussion, a peasant who by banking standards was completely ignorant said: "Now I see that without man there is no world." When the educator responded: "Let's say, for the sake of argument, that all the men on earth were to die, but that earth itself remained, together with trees, birds, animals, rivers, seas, the stars... wouldn't all this be a world?" "Oh, no," the peasant replied emphatically. "There would be no one to say: 'This is a world'."

In other words, in absence of consciousness, the world does not exist. That is the ivory-tower idea which the peasant got across, and in doing so he gently proved to Freire that abstract ideas can be taught.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Asylum in Tennessee

German family seeks asylum in the US. in order to be able to home school. Uwe Romeike and his wife, Hannelore, have alleged religious persecution back in Germany and have moved to Morristown, Tenn., last month. Snip from

Lutz Gorgens, German consul general for the Southeast United States, said he's not familiar with the Romeikes' specific situation but believes the claim of persecution is "far-fetched." He defended Germany's requirements for public education.

"For reasons deeply rooted in history and our belief that only schools properly can ensure the desired level of excellent education, we go a little bit beyond that path which other countries have chosen," Gorgens said.

Germany's approach to homeschooling is starkly different from the United States and other European countries. Homeschool students have been growing by an estimated 8 percent annually in the United States and as of 2007 totaled about 1.5 million.

As upset as you may get with the laic public school system - in the end, is home schooling a good idea?

Google front page spoof

On Mar 31 2009, at 11:59:99 PM, the following was linked through the Google front search page:

[...] But close though we may have come to a theory of the brain, the body - computer hardware - wasn't capable of handling the extraordinary processing demands that any reasonably "intelligent" brain would place on its circuitry until Moore's Law really kicked in a few years back and the modern ultra-dense machinery of atomic scale-sized gates and their light-based interconnections finally reached the scale of brain neurons - and then surpassed it, when, in early 2007, a tight-knit, vaguely feared quantum computing group here at Google
extended computers with quantum bits of Einstein-Bose condensate, polynomially speeding up our machines' data-processing ability.

The Google 'shadow quantum computing' group may very well exist, but I wonder if the joke is on them.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chris Hitchens in Beirut

When he visited Beirut last February, Christopher Hitchens almost did himself in. He was happily walking on the street, when he saw a swastika poster of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. He took it upon himself to deface it, and surely enough a party loyalist grabbed his arm and called a group of thugs. As Hitchens was pulled around towards the trunk of a car, as luck would have it the whole scene was happening in front of a chic cafe. The customers started shouting at the attackers. That scared them off for a fraction of a second, which was sufficient for Hitchens to step into a car, still with his life but with a fist in his face.

There is something to be said about Hitchens' courage to match his verbs by his deeds. One of his recurring obsessions has been to follow thoughts to their logical conclusion, wherever they may lead. If all of us were to do that, most assuredly the world would be a better place. One of Hitchens' fascinations has been with George Orwell, who went to fight for Republican Spain, but in due time had squared with the perils of the Comintern totalitarianism.

And it's not the first occasion Hitchens has had to reflect on the honest consequences of honorable thoughts. One of the most memorable pieces he's written about the Iraq was A Death in the Family. A young college-age reader of Hitchens named Mark Jennings Daily follows the writer's excitement about liberating Iraq, signs up for service, and is killed months later by an IED. Hitchens writes:

I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze. I certainly felt a very deep pang of cold dismay. I had just returned from a visit to Iraq with my own son (who is 23, as was young Mr. Daily) and had found myself in a deeply pessimistic frame of mind about the war. Was it possible that I had helped persuade someone I had never met to place himself in the path of an I.E.D.? Over-dramatizing myself a bit in the angst of the moment, I found I was thinking of William Butler Yeats, who was chilled to discover that the Irish rebels of 1916 had gone to their deaths quoting his play Cathleen ni Houlihan. He tried to cope with the disturbing idea in his poem "Man and the Echo":

Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot? …
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house lay wrecked?

Hitchens has sparred in the past with his old ideological friends regarding how to approach Islamic extremism. He's left the New Republic on the tail of a debate with Noam Chomsky, which I have not read, but should find fascinating.

Until I do that I just have one question: was Hitchens right to deface the disgusting sign in Beirut?

"And I'll take my answer off the air".