Monthly Archives: November 2002

John McPhee's Fish Tales

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Canoes, oranges, flood control. Not exactly the stuff of bestsellers. But in the mind of the story-teller John McPhee, they all come to life. He wrote a book about rocks that won him a Pulitzer Prize.

In his latest work, “The Founding Fish,” McPhee elevates the American Shad, a most unlikely protagonist, to the level of national icon. A non-fiction book about a fish? How dry. But our terminally mediocre angler baits his hook with tales of the Shad in the American Revolution, and its death-defying race to spawn in the headwaters of the Delaware.

He lands us with his own stories of the ones he cooks, and the ones that get away, all written in prose as clear as the Crystal River. Spinning fish tales with John McPhee, schoolmaster of narrative journalism.


John McPhee, writer for “The New Yorker” and author of “The Founding Fish”

Iraq after Saddam Hussein

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Here’s a new word in all the strange lexicon of a possible war with Iraq. De-baathification. That’s right. It’s a term used by some Iraqi opposition groups to imagine, not just a “regime change” but a general purging of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party.

Like its leader, the Ba’ath Party comes out of the minority Sunni community, about 20 per cent of Iraq’s population. But its leaders hold all the power: the multiple security forces and the bureaucracy. Originally, the party’s goals were far-left, revolutionary: to create socialist Arab states throughout the mideast. But all the Iraqi Ba’athists have concentrated on is their own refinement of a dictatorship. So what does regime change mean for the party?


Laith Kubba, founding member, Iraqi National Congress, Senior Program Officer, Middle East and North Africa, National Endowment for Democracy

Jon Alterman, Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington

Scott Peterson, correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

World Literature: Russia

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Far away in Russia, the writers are celebrating. After a decade of post-Soviet obscurity, one of their own is in trouble again. His name is Vladimir Sorokin. The government has charged him with pornography for a novel that features amorous clones of Stalin and Khrushchev, uh, doing it. Intellectuals are loving the attention.

It may sound cynical, but in Russia, persecution is a mark of greatness. It happened to Pushkin, to Dostoevsky, to Solzhenitsyn and to Brodsky. But the fall of Communism left Russian writers out in the cold. Television and mass media took center stage. But now the long-celebrated Russian literary voice is coming alive again. The third in our world literature series: on Vladimir Sorokin and Russia’s tradition of the persecuted writer.


Gary Shteyngart, author of an upcoming piece in the New Yorker magazine about Vladimir Sorokin, and of the novel “The Russian Debutante Handbook”

Svetlana Boym, professor of literature at Harvard University.

The Government's Hand in Marriage

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Marriage is as American as, well, getting hitched. The bride, the groom, all that “going to the chapel.” And now, Uncle Sam wants his place in the aisle.

As welfare legislation comes up for debate in Congress, marriage is moving to the center of government efforts to fight poverty. The Bush administration plans to spend up to $300 million a year promoting matrimony as one way to fix poverty. Some criticize this approach, claiming it disparages all those who live and work as single parents. They worry it could encourage mothers to stay in abusive relationships.

But the research says, overwhelmingly, that kids are just plain better off if they are raised in two-parent homes. And a even though marriage may be a private contract, it has very public consequences. The economics of “I do.”


Theodora Ooms, Senior Analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy and consultant to the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative

Avis Jones-DeWeever, Director of the Study on Poverty and Welfare at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research

Joseph Jones, Founder of the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development in Baltimore.

Lunar Lunacy

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Thirty-three years ago, Neil Armstrong took a small step that today stands at the foot of a mountain of controversy. For most people, the Apollo missions are historical fact. But as the lunar landings fade farther into the deep space of memory, a small, but vocal group of people is claiming the whole thing was a cold-war ruse. These disbelievers, fueled by controversial TV specials and bizarre websites, claim they have the facts to prove the lunar landings are science fiction.

The gravity of this controversy has NASA scrambling, considering launching PR missions aimed at finally debunking the conspiracy theories. Circling a different orbit, hecklers, hoaxes, and hard facts.


James Oberg, aerospace engineer, NASA consultant and writer

R. Rene, author of “NASA Mooned America”

Philip Plait, astronomer, and author of “Bad Astronomy”

The United States of Surveillance

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Welcome to the United States of Surveillance. Where a special secret court grants government prosecutors warrants to snoop, read paper and electronic mail, or listen in on telephone conversations of anyone suspected of involvement with terrorists.

The United States of Surveillance, where “Project Lookout” isn’t the fictional creation of a paranoid mind, but the FBI’s ever-changing most wanted list, distributed to corporations and dedicated to “information sharing” about private citizens.

Then there’s the Defense Department’s Office of Total Information Awareness, headed by John Poindexter of Iran-Contra scandal fame. He was convicted of lying to Congress. Now, he’s charged with ferreting out the truth about potentially unpatriotic Americans. National insecurity about the prerogatives of national security.


Victoria Toensing, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Justice Department’s Terrorism Unit (1984 – 1988) and founding partner, diGenova and Toensing

Amitai Etzioni, author, “The Limits of Privacy,” and First University Professor, George Washington University

Stephen Schulhofer, Robert B. McKay Professor of Law, New York University

Old Hatreds, New Violence

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“Hebron; past, present and forever.” It’s a common bumper sticker on cars driven by Israelis living in and outside the West Bank. Hebron is claimed both by the 150,000 Palestinians and the 450 Israeli settlesrs who live there.

In this place with neighborhoods and streets named “Abraham our ancestor,” and “The Martyrs,” the threat of violence is always in the air. Last Friday, Islamic Jihad ambushed and killed 12 Israelis. The day after the shooting, settlers were busy establishing a new outpost on the very spot where blood was spilled.

Now some Palestinian families have received word their homes may be demolished to make way for a new security corridor. And so it goes. Hebron; past, present and perpetual hatred.


Ron Pundak, Director General of The Peres Center for Peace.

Homeland Security Gets a Department

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The pressure is on in Washington to give Homeland Security a promotion. The House has already approved a bill creating a new cabinet-level department, and today all eyes are on the Senate, as it prepares to take the deciding vote.

After 9/11, we got the Office, Tom Ridge, and the color-coded alerts. But the Bush administration’s goal, all along, has been to create a new department charged with protecting and defending the nation against terrorist threats. Over 20 agencies, from Customs to Coast Guard, under one proverbial roof. And yet, for an inspector on the Canada border, or a sheriff in Detroit, what difference does a new bureaucracy in Washington make?

Reinventing government, rethinking security, and what it could mean, on the ground, for your safety.


Phil Anderson, Senior Fellow in International Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

John Wilda, Customs inspector in Highgate Springs, Vermont

Sheriff Robert Ficano, Wayne County (Detroit).

Giving Birth after 50

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It turns out the biological clock has two faces. The ovaries slow down as a woman approaches menopause, but the uterus keeps working, at least that’s the view of some doctors quoted in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A healthy woman, they claim, can have a healthy baby into her 50s or even her 60s, using donated eggs and hormone therapy. The California doctors argue that there’s no medical reason why it ought not to be done. Others say this is a case of science over common sense, that for medical and many other reasons, the cutoff for fertility treatments should be 50 years old.

The debate over having it all: hot flashes, menopause, and morning sickness.


Dr. Richard J. Paulson, obstetrician, University of Southern California Medical School, lead author, “Pregnancy in the Sixth Decade of Life,” Journal of the American Medical Association

Judy Bershak, patient of Dr. Paulson, gave birth at 50

Dr. Kim Thornton, reproductive endocrinologist, Boston IVF.


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Twenty three years ago, the students of Tehran went over the walls of the U.S. Embassy, now they are in the street calling for freedom for democracy at home.

They are protesting against the death sentence imposed on the history professor Hashem Aghajari. He’s accused of questioning clerical rule in the radical Islamic nation. The campus protests are the largest political demonstrations in three years, and they have a significance beyond the imprisoned professor. This has become a political staring contest between the conservative hardliners, headed by Ayatollah Khamenei, and the elected, reform-minded President Khatami.

What’s clear is that the tension between those who want more democracy and those who don’t may well come to a head, at the very moment when the entire region is poised for the possibility of war. Iran, once again on the verge of transformation.


Ali Banuazizi Professor of Cultural Psychology and
Codirector of the Program in Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies at Boston College

John Muir, BBC Correspondent based in Iran

Guy Dinmore, Financial Times reporter based in Tehran.