September 26, 2006

A decision disliked by everyone. Almost everyone.

Posted in Germany, Islam at 11:52 pm by billdawson

I have just been reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s account of the Deutsche Oper’s decision not to perform a particular version of Mozart’s Idomeneo because it was judged to be potentially too dangerous.  Why too dangerous?

Why else?  Because Muslim ragists might take offense to  the fact that, in this production, their prophet (pbuh) suffers a fate similar to that suffered by victims of some of the more energetic of today’s adherents to the Religion of Peace ™: beheading.

Although Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon — yes, Poseidon — suffer the same fate in this production of the opera, one apparently cannot count on this equal opportunity beheading to placate the ragists.  And we know what tends to happen when ragists act out.  Kirsten Harms, the head of the Deutsche Oper, didn’t want that responsibility.

If the FAZ account is correct, it’s a bizarre story. It seems as though Harms, et al, actually kinda hoped nobody would notice that the opera disappeared from the season’s program:

Erst auf den Tip eines Informanten hin begann sich Ende letzter Woche Markus Geiler vom Evangelischen Pressedienst (epd) für die Sache zu interessieren. Tatsächlich fand sich im Spielplan der Deutschen Oper kein „Idomeneo“ mehr, ja nicht einmal ein Hinweis auf dessen Nicht-Wiederaufnahme. Nachfragen Geilers beim Landeskriminalamt und dem Opernhaus brachten schließlich das Gegenteil ans Licht. Getrieben von der öffentlichen Nachfrage und nachdem bereits die Meldung des epd die Redaktionen erreichte, gab das Opernhaus am Montag eine Pressemeldung heraus: „Idomeneo im November entfällt“.

(After getting an informant’s tip, Markus Geiler of the evangelical press service (epd) began to become interested in the story at the end of last week.  True enough, “Idomeneo” was no longer on the Deutsche Oper’s program, and without any explanation.  Geiler’s inquiries at the state criminal police [Landeskriminalamt] and the Opera House finally brought the issue to light.  Pressured by enquiries and after the epd report reached editorial offices, the Opera finally gave out a press release on Monday: “Idomeneo in November cancelled.”)

In case you were worried, you will be pleased to know that this is not any kind of self-censorship or curtailing of artistic freedom (I’m being sarcastic).  Referring to Harms’s strange press conference:

Es gehe nicht um eine grundsätzliche Einschränkung der Freiheit der Kunst. „Es geht um Einschränkung der Kunstfreiheit an dieser Stelle.“

(It is not a question of a fundamental curtailment of artistic freedom.  “It is a question of a curtailment of artistic freedom on this point.”)  [I translated “an dieser Stelle” as “on this point”.  It could, I suppose, also mean “location”.]

And later, after meeting with Harms, the communist (oh, excuse me, “PDS”) Berlin Culture Senator issued a statement in which he said that he and Harms agreed

„daß hier kein Präzedenzfall vorliegt und auch keine Selbstzensur.“

(that this neither sets a precedent nor is it self-censorship.)

As FAZ immediately asks, “What is it then?” (Was sonst?)

Meanwhile, people are coming out of the woodwork to condemn the decision.  Everybody hates it: representatives of the right, the left, the center, of religious communities…Oh, wait, except for this guy:

Der Vorsitzenden des Islamrats, Ali Kizilkaya, begrüßte hingegen die Absetzung. „Eine Oper oder eine Karikatur – das macht keinen großen Unterschied.“ Es gehe nicht um die Freiheit der Kunst, so Kizilkaya, sondern um „Respekt vor dem Anderen“.

The chairman of the Islamic Council, Ali Kizilkaya, welcomed the cancellation.  “An opera or a cartoon — there is no big difference.”  It’s not about artistic freedom, according to Kizilkaya, but rather about “respect for others.”

And we can learn a lot about respect for others from Islam.  Am I right?

(NOTE: Here is a link to a Deutsche Welle story (in English) about the decision.)

September 24, 2006

How beautiful was Vienna today?

Posted in Austria, Vienna at 12:09 am by billdawson

Just let Belvedere show you:


September 17, 2006

Benedict XVI spoke deliberately

Posted in Benedict XVI, Islam, Religion at 12:32 am by billdawson

A few minutes ago I examined Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg speech of 12 September 2006 by quickly reading through the English text found at Catholic World News. First I must say that it’s really not a document to be “quickly read-through”, as I’ve said I did, if you really want to take it in and understand it. But I was not particularly interested in coming away with a clear understanding of his arguments concerning faith and reason or the “reasonableness” of “rais[ing] the question of God through the use of reason.” I was only interested in seeing how the much maligned statement about Mohammed fit in to the context of the entire speech; I specifically wanted to see what I could gleen of the Pope’s intentions in employing the anecdote about the Byzantine emperor and the learned Persian.

My opinion is that it does not take a close reading and understanding of the main points of the speech to recognize that the anecdote is peripheral and could easily have been left out. For that reason, I can only conclude that the Pope very deliberately included it in order to criticize today’s Islam. In fact, everything following the paragraph just after the long quotation of the Emperor reads like a different speech. His arguments concerning reason and faith throughout the remainder of the speech depend in no way upon the anecdote.

Allow me to put it another way: though one may perhaps argue that the anecdote can be seen to pertain to questions of faith and reason, certainly the Pope could have found other anecdotes that are much more obviously connected to that topic. The rest of the speech is decidely not about violent conversions, holy war or even violence in general. Instead, the rest of the speech is really a very highly philosophical look at reason and faith, a topic which is obviously very dear to this philosophical, academic pontiff.

So what were his intentions? I believe that this Pope understands the seriousness of Islam’s modern crisis and wants to continue to comment on it but feels that he needs to cloak his criticisms somewhat due to the ridiculous islamic rage that we have all come to loathe and expect anytime anybody of any significance offends the Prophet (pbuh) and his followers. (Said followers responded right on queue to the speech.) In Regensburg, the criticism was cloaked by relating it — however peripherally and perhaps clumsily — to a much larger philosophical topic.

It is a shame to have to say this, but such cloaking really is necessary for a man such as the Catholic Pope. How many more Holy Land christian churches would be destroyed if the Pope decided to base an entire speech on criticisms of Islam?

As it is, I find Benedict XVI to be rather courageous on this topic. You can see from the Vatican’s “clarification” of the speech that although he is willing to put on a friendly face and offer dialogue, he does not really intend to let angry Mohammedans silence him completely on the topic.

Pope Benedict XVI “sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful,” the Vatican Secretary of State announced in a clarifying statement released on Saturday, September 16.

That is no where near an apology, so I hope no newspapers are headlining it as such. I recognize there are certain dangers in relying on the English version of the Vatican’s clarification, since the Pope certainly did not give his instructions concerning it in English. But if the English is faithful, a word such as “sensitivities” is a clever choice. My first thought was, “indeed, the over-sensitive Muslims.” I am rather pleased with this “clarification”, for I do not want the Pope to apologize.

If there is any world religion today that requires criticism, debate and self-examination, it is indeed Islam. Sadly, Islam is the world religion least likely to accept criticism and most likely to respond with violence. I can defer to TigerHawk for a description of my own reaction to the muslim seething of the last few days (nay, years). He expresses my feelings perfectly:

For my part, I am sick of “Muslim rage.” Whether inspired by the pope or Danish cartoonists or the clumsy use of the word “crusade” by a Western politician, there is simply no defense for the behavior of these imams and their followers. It is barbaric, and everybody who is not barbaric or an unreconstructed apologist for barbarians knows it. The Muslims who commit arson and mayhem in response to some Westerner speaking his opinion — and the pope, as leader of the Roman church, is exactly that — have chosen to act as enemies of reason, peace, and everything that is good in the world.

Whether Islam or pre-Islamic cultural institutions are the source of the problem, there is no escaping the fact that a huge proportion of the Muslim world is economically, scientifically, culturally and politically incompetent by the standards of the world. It has chosen to invent nothing since the Middle Ages, preferring to stew in the juices of decline than solve its own problems. It is so insecure in its faith that the slightest criticism from a non-believer propels thousands of clerics and millions of followers into paroxysms of rage. Yet Islam needs jihad, which I understand means “struggle.” It needs a jihad against illiteracy. It needs a jihad against ignorance. It needs a jihad against sloth. It needs a jihad against corruption. It needs a jihad in support of women, without whom it cannot succeed in the modern world. It needs a jihad against the clerics who have — allegedly, according to “moderates” — perverted the truth of its religion. It needs a jihad against its governments — secular and Islamic — who have destroyed the future for more than a billion people. It needs a jihad against despair.

Until I see the arsonists and rioters among Muslims embracing these jihads, I will hold them responsible for the bad choices that they make, including the choice to reject secular education, the choice to destroy rather than construct, the choice to dwell in the past instead of dream about the future, the choice to obsess about Jews rather than wonder how they might emulate the Jews, and the choice to have so little confidence in the power of their own religion that they oppress and condemn and kill those who choose otherwise.

If Pope Benedict apologizes, I will resent him for the rest of his reign.

Read also the rest of the TigerHawk entry, because as its title — Infantilizing Muslim “Rage” — suggests, it concerns the pathetic (and, though they may not recognize it, condescending) treatment of these ragists by the Western elite.

[Updated 17.09.2006 19:45: Though the Pope has now issued something more akin to a classic apology, I would still say he is choosing his words rather cleverly.  To say that you are sorry about someone’s reaction is not the quite the same thing as saying you are sorry for what you yourself said or did.  Am I, myself, being too clever here? Perhaps, but it sure seems to me that those are some carefully chosen words in the so-called apology.  He doesn’t retract a word of what he said, and he makes it clear that he things that others are mistaken in interpreting what he said.

And, like in the original “regret”, which contained the word “sensitivities”, this new “apology” contains “sensibilities”, which I rather like.  I think John Hinderaker at Power Line is not giving the Pope enough credit for cleverness.]

September 13, 2006

My new job as opera reviewer

Posted in Austria, Music, Opera at 11:35 pm by billdawson

No, I’ll stick to programming computers. But I am pleased to say that I have now attended an opera at least (and exactly) one time in my life. Last week my wife and I saw La bohème at the Vienna State Opera, surely one of the world’s most famous opera houses. Amazingly and embarrassingly enough, I’ve lived here for 6 years and never previously attended an opera at the Staatsoper (or anywhere else, for that matter.)

Well, the experience was absolutely fabulous. I was actually overwhelmed. And of course now I’m thinking, “I’m going to start going to the opera frequently!” In truth, don’t be surprised if it’s another six years until the next one — you know how it is, you get begeistert over something, make big plans, and then your day-to-day routine kicks-in and your good intentions are suddenly not so important anymore. But I’d sure like to try to make it a more common occurrence.

Here are some of my impressions about the whole opera-going experience.

First, if you’re thinking about attending an opera for the first time, I can’t recommend enough that you buy a CD recording of a performance of the opera and follow along with the libretto once or twice. If I had not “studied” before going, I think I still would have been very impressed by the atmosphere (particularly because it was inside a gem like the Staatsoper), the music, the stage and the performers, but the novelty of all that would have worn off long before the performance ended. To be able to follow along — and to anticipate — is really a big plus and makes it much easier to hold your interest. In fact, our seats did have the little screens that show the libretto (in either English or German), which means I could have followed along fairly well even if I had not studied. But still, the ability to anticipate what was coming up next made it much more rewarding. I studied enough beforehand that I was actually able to think, at points, things like “Oh, I like the part that is coming up — it’s humorous” (such as when I knew the dancing around and goofing off in the garrett in Act 4 were coming up soon.)

Another important thing is to dress comfortably. I was thinking about wearing my suit (something which I don’t need to do at my job and which I hate to do in general), since many people do indeed dress formally for the opera (particularly on this night, since it was the opening of the season), but my wife convinced me to dress “nice” yet more comfortably. That meant, for me, some dark slacks and a button-down shirt — no tie, no jacket (it was a warm night.) Thankfully, I took her advice. I was very comfortable during the 2.5 hours, and yet I did not feel self-consciously under-dressed. We sat in the second row (the tickets were a gift), which upped the ante a bit on the dress code, but still I didn’t feel weird at all. In fact, I noticed that two tourist-looking guys at the end of our row were in jeans. (Funny how “we” humans often feel better as long as we can spot at least one nearby person who offers a more extreme example of something about which we might be self-conscious. Or am I the only one? Should I not have admitted that?)

Finally, though the second row was truly fabulous — I enjoyed looking into the pit and watching the orchestra — I think I would be more likely to recommend sitting at least several more rows back, because the nearness of the orchestra actually overwhelmed the singing a few times from our perspective. I think had we been sitting back a bit, those strong voices would have won out over the pitted orchestra. But where we were, it wasn’t too difficult for the orchestra to drown out the singing now and again. It wasn’t such a big deal, but I think next time I’d rather sit back a bit.

September 11, 2006

Meet — and remember — William E Wilson

Posted in 2996, 911 at 1:33 am by billdawson


[Note: This entry is my contribution to the “2996” tribute begun and coordinated by D.Challener Roe.]

I am pleased to introduce and to remember William Eben Wilson, whom I’ll refer to as “Bill” because it is clear that those who knew him called him Bill.

Bill was 55 years old on September 11, 2001. He worked as a maritime insurance broker for Aon Corporation at the World Trade Center in New York. That was his “9 to 5” existence, so to speak, but it’s clear to me that Bill would have preferred to spend more of his time out on the links. As the New York Times tribute to Bill indicates, Bill golfed regularly with his wife, Ann Payne, and the two shared similar handicaps. (Golf handicaps, that is!)

William E. Wilson had a handicap of 20, and his wife, Ann Payne, had a 22, and they played together nearly every weekend from April through October.

“On any given day, I could beat him or he could beat me,” Ms. Payne said, “and we loved playing together.”

Eight years ago, for his 50th birthday, they took a golf cruise through the Caribbean. It was his idea and he loved it — each day they got off their ship and played golf on a different island.

In his guestbook at, which appears to me to be the best of the 9/11 memorial sites, relatives, friends and colleagues of Bill Wilson have remembered him with many kind words. He was “a guy with a perpetual smile” who “always semed to be in good humor”. He “was a wonderful person and a friend” who “is missed and will never be forgotten.” He was “warm and ‘always up’.” He “inspired people with great charm and the boundless enthusiasm for both work and ‘play’ that he brought to life.” He was a “charismatic person” with a “wonderful outlook on life.” “You just felt better about things when in his company.”

Bill Wilson also knew his business. His “clients were also his friends, and he was a master and combining business and personal friendships in a truly seamless and sincere fashion.” One guest book contributor appreciates Bill as a kind of industry mentor: “Bill took me under his wing, taught me what I needed to now about the marine insurance business.”

An industry colleague writing at emphasizes that the industry is a people business — and a business many of whose people were taken on September 11th. (Aon itself lost 176 employees on that day.) She adds: “When it came to being a ‘people person’ Bill Wilson was one of the best I ever met.”

Another visitor at, describing himself as a “friendly competitor” in the industry, includes a photo from a golf outing in Maui just 9 months before that fateful day. Bill Wilson is on the left in this photo:

But of all the many touching tributes to Bill found at, my favorite is this one, written on 11 September 2003, which I show in its entirety:

Bill Wilson walked into my off-campus house and into my life, one sunny morning in January of 1964. He was a junior at the University of Dayton and I a freshman. Bill was truly my “first” love and very special. For two years we made many college memories. Through Bill, I also had the good fortune to meet and live with his wonderful sisters, Maureen and Jean, of which I have had a life long friendship.

On this Patriot Day, the second anniversary of his death, I fondly remember Bill. In my heart, I believe on that day of orror Bill Wilson surely died a hero.

Till we meet again,

Janet Rudy Gerrard

A visit to CNN.COM’s memorial pages shows that Bill and I perhaps shared something other than a great first name. It looks as though he and I both like cats. I’m always happy to come across other men who like cats, because some people (dog-loving bigots!) seem to think feline appreciation should be left to the fairer sex. Bill and I beg to differ. I stand by my three cats — Mimi, Monkey and Kitty — just as Bill stood by his cat:

I’m supported in my belief in Bill’s love for cats by the fact that the Aon Corporation memorial site indicates that contributions in Bill’s name could be made to the Cat Fanciers’ Association’s Disaster Relief Fund.

And so that’s precisely what I’ve done today, this 11th of September, 2006, on the five year anniversary of Bill’s passing. The CFA Disaster Relief Fund has a bit more in its bank account, in the name of William E. Wilson, golf lover, cat lover, insurance broker, husband, brother, cousin, mentor and, I’m sure, much, much more to the many people who miss him.

Please visit the 2996 web site to learn about and remember more of the thousands of people who, like Bill Wilson, lost their lives five years ago today.

September 3, 2006

Europe: Your chance is now

Posted in Europe, Iran at 6:53 pm by billdawson

In an article published by the Wall Street Journal and dated 22 September 2005, three European foreign ministers (France, Germany, UK) and the EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy complained about Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment, explained that such enrichment cannot really be related to peaceful use of nuclear energy, recited instances of Iranian deception and concluded thusly:

The proliferation risks if Iran continues on its current path are very great. We hope all members of the international community will remain united. Collectively, we are responsible for meeting the challenge.

Since that time, the challenge has been “met” by responding to Iran’s continued defiance with little more than public criticism accompanied by new “incentives” and deadlines. The process has not exactly been speedy. For example, whereas these ministers, in their article, made it perfectly clear that they were aware of what Iran is actually up to, it took a full ten months before the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1696.

In addition to formally endorsing a set of extraordinary incentives offered to Iran, this resolution finally also contained at least a hint of a threat in it. Paragraph 8 notes that the council “expresses its intention” to “adopt appropriate measures under Article 41 of Chapter VII” of the UN Charter if the IAEA is unable to report by 31. August 2006 that Iran is complying.

The IAEA has issued its report (hat tip Vital Perspective), and, as everybody expected, Iran is not complying.

So much for the background information. Now to my point concerning Europe’s big chance and how they are so far handling it.

For as long as I have lived here — and particularly since 9/11 — I have read the frequent complaint (especially in the left-leaning press) that the U.S. is a “hegemony”. Terms like “arrogant power” and “sheriff” get tossed around with ease. Readers are reminded of the dangers of having a single superpower. Presumably, the people who make such comments would like to see that hegemonic power be curtailed by an increased European influence on world affairs. Although I often find these complaints of US hegemony offensive and irrational, I understand why people are not comfortable with a single country being so much more influential than all others.  Speaking personally, I would love to see a reduced US role around the world, particularly for economic reasons.

In the case of Iran, the current U.S. administration has made it clear to the mullahs that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not a bilateral U.S.-Iran issue, nor a trilateral U.S.-Israel-Iran issue, but rather an issue concerning the whole international community. To that end, the U.S. has stayed on the sidelines to an unusual extent and, having no direct diplomatic relations with Iran, deferred to the European “3+1” (England, France, Germany and the E.U. High Representative for foreign relations, Javier Solana) for most “negotiations” with Iran.

I quote the word “negotiations” above because, in fact, there have not really been any negotiations as of yet. We find ourselves stuck in that stage of trying to lay the groundwork for negotiations. Negotiations themselves cannot begin unless and until Iran suspends enrichment activities. The IAEA report of 31 August 2006 is rather clear on the current state of that condition:

Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities; [paragraph 28]

How is “Europe” going to respond to this defiance? It appears we will have to wait at least another two weeks to find out. The E.U. foreign ministers, meeting in Finland this weekend, have agreed to send Mr. Solana yet again to Iran; he should then report on progress within two weeks. Meanwhile, if assessments by Bronwen Maddox at Times Online and Mark Beunderman at EU Observer are correct, a certain level of EU in-fighting is breaking out, making it more difficult to sustain the appearance of a united front. Maddox says that the new government in Italy wants to play a bigger role in the Iran issue; they are not part of the “3+1” but they are the leading supplier of troops to prop up the peace in Lebanon. Beunderman says that because 22 of the 25 EU countries have not seen Iran’s written response to the P5+1 incentives program, many are beginning to see the “3” (U.K., Germany, France) as a “quasi-directorate” on foreign affairs. Beunderman concludes that “most EU ministers at the meeting showed little appetite for the idea” for sanctions.

To me, this means that the authority of the “3+1” is quickly deteriorating and that there is not now and never will be any consensus within the EU as a whole regarding what to do next about Iran. Because a “deadline” has just passed, this deterioration could not occur at a more embarrassing time for the so-called “West” and at a more opportune and satisfying time for the mullahs. If I were a mullah, I would have already not been taking the EU seriously to begin with, and I would now feel more vindicated than ever for holding that opinion.

Is the positive projection of European influence a hopeless case? It depends on whether you define Europe as the “EU”, as many of Europe’s elites would like you to do. As a foreign policy institution, I believe that the EU is, in fact, a hopeless case and that the United States government made a grave mistake in agreeing to grant authority to the “+1” part of the European “3+1”. Mr. Solana will be representing everybody and nobody as he travels to Iran in the coming days. Those with whom he meets will know that he is backed by no authority and that he represents no real threat to them. Mr. Solana and others like him apparently continue to respect Iran as a serious partner in these discussions, whereas the Iranians do not and will not grant him the same respect.

On the other hand, individual European countries who take the Iranian threat seriously can and should form a coalition with or without the United States to immediately impose at least low-level sanctions such as restricting the travel of high-ranking members of the Iranian government. Such sanctions are largely symbolic, but at the moment we are in dire need for some kind of symbols of European fortitude. And I stress that the Europeans can do this without the US, which has, itself, shown considerable recent weakness on precisely these kinds of symbolic sanctions by granting the former president of Iran a visa to enter the country.

For decades, many European countries have conveniently and passively ceded their sovereignty over their own foreign policies to the United States (as “sheriff”), to the United Nations and to the EU.  For the US to be less “hegemonic”, this is a habit that European countries need to break.  It is time for a few European countries — outside the framework of the EU — to emerge together with a backbone and publicly admit the obvious: the Iranians are not serious negotiating partners and they should no longer be treated as such.

There is a precedent for such a move.  In January 2003 several European countries signed a joint letter on Iraq,  much to the consternation of France’s president.  These countries might be shying away from a similar declaration because of the (in my mind, undeserved) political embarrassment that has accompanied the lack of a WMD “smoking gun” in Iraq and the popular portrayal of the entire Iraq war as a disaster.  But great states and great statesmen would never allow embarrassment over alleged past mistakes to stop them from taking a stance against the terror-sponsoring, nuclear ambitious theocracy of Iran.