Letting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. die

On Sunday I finished a book that took me a long time to read. True, it wasn't a short read--weighing in at 980 pages. But it wasn't the page count that slowed me down. I read slowly because I knew that on the last page, Martin Luther King Jr. would be killed. As the author, Taylor Branch, wrote in the final sentence describing the Thursday afternoon in Memphis that he must have imagined writing for 20 years, "Time on the balcony had turned lethal, which left hanging the last words fixed on a gospel song of refuge. King stood still for once, and his sojourn on earth went blank."
The book is At Canann's Edge, which completes the "America in the King Years" triology by Branch begun in 1980s. All three books rest together on my book shelve--3,000 pages of civil rights church rallies, stone-pelted marches, tear gas and billy clubs, court room farces, and occasional transcendent success.
The books belong to the special category of history that I think of as impressionism. Branch spent years researching each book, conducting hundreds of interviews and sifting through great mounds of archive boxes (the endnotes for this last book extend for 200 pages). The resulting narratives capture both the grainy detail of a hotel room SCLC strategy session 40 years ago (who argued with whom, the food they were eating, and how King reclined on a bed and listened with his shirt sleeves rolled up), and the baited questions that King parried on the Sunday morning talk shows (which supposedly reflected the mood of the country). Branch's writing style examines each pixelated perspective of an event many times over, before sweeping on to the next multi-colored dot, or to an entirely different spot in his novelistic canvas. His books can be expasperating to read, especially if you want a single, resounding declaration of the history that happened. But if you persist, and endure some of his aimless pursuits historical alleys, you come away from his books realizing that history is an endless curve with no sharp, easy corners.
The most surprising revelations for me in these books involve the actions that the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover took to discredit, embarass, and even place King in grave danger (by not communicating threats to his life they received). Based on all of the formerly secret documents that Branch reviewed involving secret wire-tapping, and smear campaigns, I think it is only a matter of time before official Washington, DC realizes that naming the FBI building after Hoover is a poor choice. His name will come down, as has his reputation in history. And the second startling take-away from this books was how involved King became in the anti-war movement towards the end of his life. When school children are introduced to King, they learn about bus boycotts, bloody marches, "I have a dream..." speech, and the Nobel Peace Prize. But they don't hear about King's strong and very controversial stance against the Vietnam War--which, according to At Canaan's Edge, consumed much of his last year and half of activism. And then there are another thousand odd details that leave you amazed that history unfolded the way it has. But in the end, I believe, you are better for knowing all of what happened--even the stuff that that upsets and ashames you. I wish more history was taught the way of these books.


How Iraqi insurgents are winning with YouTube and cell phones

I am wondering if the battles playing out every day in the streets of Iraq are more like the trench warfare of World War I than the oft-made Vietnam comparisons. Except, the advantages in Baghdad are the reverse of those at Verdun and the Somme.
In the First World War the defensive technologies of the machine gun, barbed wire, mines, and trenches stalemated the lingering 19th-century offensive tactics of massed infantry and cavalry charges. The result was a bloody slaughter and front lines that moved only hundreds of yards during years of combat.
In Iraq the insurgents are benefiting from numerous offensive technologies that make them a more formidable fighting force. Cell phones, shaped-charged warheads, digital timers and electrical components for detonators, downloadable satellite maps, abundant motor vehicles, and even chlorine gas and YouTube are all elements of their arsenal that didn't exist in previous insurgencies. When military historians look to the past to learn how to quell uprisings, the most recent examples they can cite are from the 1950s and 60's--several technological ages ago. And our soldiers in Iraq--armed with tanks designed to fight tanks and helicopters designed to destroy massed formations of enemy armor--are scrambling after flip-flop wearing young men who design and execute their deadly attacks with military technology that can be purchased at a strip mall Radio Shack. Could we have forseen this incredbile leveling of the asymmetry in insurgent wars? I don't know, but the daily newspaper headlines show that it is happening.


The global warming skeptic playbook revealed

I'm confused. Do global warming skeptics live on the same planet as you and me? And I'm being literal here. Are they residents of Earth just like the rest of us?
If NASA predicted with 90% probability that a large asteroid was going to strike the Earth, resulting in a massive global climate change, would these naysayers find solace in the 10% chance of a near miss? Or would they join the rest of us (and Ben Affleck) to figure out how to use leftover nukes to blast that hunk of space rock out of our solar system?
I've noticed that much of the inertia to cast doubt on global warming science comes from the conservative media net. Every afternoon my Google News bot deposits dozens of articles with the phrase "global warming" into my inbox. Fully one
quarter of those articles blast global warming as an unholy alliance between Al Gore, Hollywood, the United Nations, and rabid environmentalists who secretly desire to take away our SUVs. Many of these articles come from websites like FOXNews, DrudgeReport, Newsbusters, CyberCast News Service. Others are written by rotund pundits from the Hoover Institution, and AEI, and all the way down to the local crumedegons who write op-eds for their small-town newspapers.
But no matter where these articles come from, they all follow the same formula:
1) Claim Al Gore is still a sore loser.
2) Trot out one or two compromised and has-been scientists to claim that "not everyone" believes that climate change is manmade (just 99%).
3) Draw broad scientific conclusions about climate fluctuations based on their marginal understanding of the "little Ice Age" in the 1500's.
4) Blame the United Nations and especially the French.
5) Talk about solar flares even though you don't really know what they are.
Don't forget to blame China and India for burning so much coal (even though the U.S. produces 1/4 of the planet's greenhouse gases with 1/20 of its population).
7) Hey, global warming will make winters milder, and can't polar bears relocate to Madagascar or something?

The arguments of global warming skeptics remind me of the playbook adopted by the religious right in the 1990s to counter the supposed "secular humanist" agenda taking over the public schools. In those skirmishes, their oft-repeated logic was that when compulsory school prayer was declared unconstitutional in 1963, teenage birth rates, school violence, and the worship of Satan went through the roof. It sounds laughable, but I heard these claims made at countless school board meetings and read them in dozens of pamphlets. And to some people, this faulty deductive reasoning makes sense.
The problem is that the victims of the religious right wars were high school kids who had their constitutional rights trodden on. The victims in the global warming war of ideas, however, is the heath of our planet.