Category: History

Trans-Siberian Highway

 It was too good to be true…

I found out that the short curved section in the middle of the Trans-Siberian Highway is just an urban legend, probably based on a similar tale about the Moscow-Saint Petersburg Railway.  Here’s the real story:

Nicholas I is involved in a common misconception about the railroad from Moscow to St. Petersburg. When it was to be constructed, the engineers proposed to Nicholas to draw the future road on the map himself. So he is said to have taken the ruler and put one end at Moscow, the other at St. Petersburg, and then drawn a straight line. But as his finger was slightly sticking out, this left the road with a small curving. In fact, this curve was added in 1877, 26 years after the railway’s construction to circumvent a steep gradient that lasted for 15km, and interfered with the railway’s functionality.

The “Tsar’s Finger” has since been sliced off (,2763,579665,00.html).  A similar story is told about Josef Stalin who, when presented with two different plans for the Moskva hotel, signed across the middle of the two. As the architects were too frightened to ask Stalin which plan he wanted, both designs were used and the hotel, still standing just off Red Square, has two different facades.

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Out of Egypt

 Ms. Rice,

Thank you.  I just finished reading the paperback version of your novel [Christ the Lord – Out of Egypt].  I immediately detected a Catholic flavor to your tale, which is OK.  I saw it in Mel Gibson’s movie as well.  What I didn’t understand was the insertion of “Arabian” mercenaries on at least two occasions.  What was that all about?  Why did you feel it necessary to sell the notion that Jews and Arabs were adversaries even in the first century?

I was disappointed in your endorsement of Hillary Clinton.  That’s your right of course, but I was disappointed that you never discussed why you did NOT endorse Barak Obama.  In fact, his name never comes up on your website.  To me, Hillary Clinton is little different from her Republican rivals, while Obama seems much more at ease articulating an antiwar posture and discussing his Christian faith.

If you’re interested, I’ll send you this Baptist’s perspective on the current situation re. Islam in America.  You may be surprised.

Your brother in Christ.

Anne wrote back within the hour:

My comments on the Arabs were taken from Josephus, what he describes happening during those periods.  So it is based on the only primary source we have about what was going on during the turbulence in Judea and Galilee in the First Century and right before. — There might be some Roman sources, but none go into the detail, as you probably know, that we find in Josephus.  — I don’t care for Barak Obama.  He appears too young and inexperienced to be president.  His remarks about diplomacy indicate he doesn’t fully understand why heads of state meet each other only after extensive negotiations by others in the lower ranks.  His remarks about the people of New Orleans after Katrina, that they were people America had forgotten, seemed off.  It was complex, the situation there, but not everybody there who appears to be poor is in fact poor.  New Orleans has a distinct character. — I could go on.  He doesn’t impress me.  — I think Hillary will be the next president.  I think she has the wisdom, the experience, and the strength.  And she can get through the ring of fire now created by the media and the internet for every candidate.  We can’t afford another bad candidate.  Kerry and Gore were fine men but not very good candidates.  I think Hillary is head and shoulders above everybody else.  —- She’ll bring in top advisors, she’ll be thoughtful and patient in foreign affairs; and she’s dedicated to workable policies of social justice.  I think she’s definitely the best.   I hope she picks Joe Biden as her running mate, but I have a bad feeling she’s going to be stuck with Obama.  He is not at all a bad man.  Just young.  Just not ready for the White House yet.  — Thanks for writing, Anne. 

I wrote her back:

A belated postscript.  I read your piece several years ago, “What it means to lose New Orleans.”  That was wonderful.  I visited the Lower 9th Ward last winter, my first visit since Katrina, and was heartbroken.  Thanks for your comments re. why you endorsed Hillary over Barak.  I hear that a lot (i.e., his inexperience).  Around here, there’s a lot of residual anecdotal animosity towards Hillary, remnants of her years as a rather pompous First Lady when husband Bill was Governor of Arkansas.  When I remind people that William Wilberforce entered Parliament at the age of 21, and that his friend William Pitt became Prime Minister at 24, it kinda deflates their argument about the inherent superiority of seniority.  Your pro-Hillary arguments actually sound a lot like the pro-Bush arguments way back when he was first running for president and I think there’s a near-universal concensus that his reign has been disastrous.

Here’s the link to my editorial that ran this week:  — it was the first time in a decade of writing to newspapers that I have felt vaguely threatened.  A man with a voice that sounded like it was right out of the movie “Sling Blade” called me up and, after confirming that it I who had written the article, asked me if I was a Muslim.  When I asked him why he thought that, he responded, “Well, why would you defend THEM if you’re not a Muslim?”

I am indeed familiar with Josephus, but think that some of what he writes needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  He wasn’t exactly reporting for the BBC or Wall Street Journal.  I did appreciate what you had to say about the controversy over why the destruction of Palestine (not just Jerusalem) is never mentioned in the New Testament.  I’ve never gotten a good explanation of that from the camp that thinks the Gospels and letters weren’t compiled and circulated as a collective whole until well after the Diaspora.

Be Well.

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Matthew 24

 Mr. Turner was interesting, but he disappointed me with his “spin” on Matthew 24.  Seems like the gist of his message was that, when he’s really challenged by alternate/competing philosophies or moments of doubt, he rests his faith in the prophecies of the Bible.  Funny how Jesus could be clearly explaining things that would come to pass in his audience’s generation, but then suddenly shift into really abstract metaphors concerning distant-future Christendom and a special time of tribulation way, way beyond anything ordinary Christians would ever have to endure.

Mr. Turner did bring out some interesting points, such as the idea that Jesus’ audience knew exactly what he meant by “the abomination of desolation” because a similar incident had already occurred a few hundred years earlier.  Also enjoyed thinking about his suggestion that the standard Jewish response to asking questions 1, 2, and 3 was to answer them in the order of 3, 2, and 1…

However, it was clear (to me) that he was doing his best to match the text with his conceptions (pre, perhaps?) of a still-future age of tribulation.  Wonder if amateur theologians along the Bataan Death March discussed whether tribulation was still future?  Or if the Anabaptists, just before their tongues were cut out by their Jesuit inquisitors, discussed the finer aspects of premillennial eschatology…

I’m not sure if this is part of my leftward political slide, but ever since Sunday, I’ve been wondering if the whole post-mil school of end-times thinking is a relatively new flavor of Christendom nurtured in the bowels of expanding Western empires.  Have Christians suffering in the crucible of terrible persecutions held to the post-mil view of eschatology, or is that a luxury enjoyed by Westerners confident that their societal luxuries are soon going to be the planetary norm?  Will post-mil theology fade from the scene after a few more millennia have passed, or will First Baptist’s church bulletins eventually evolve to feature the “unreached galaxy of the week?”

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the Baptists in Lebanon were not doctrinally/intellectually prepared for the suffering they endured during their civil war.  They really expected to catch the “magic bus” rapture that would let them escape that kind of anguish.  I went to my high school reunion in Washington DC last week.  We watched a movie titled “West Beirut” that accurately captured the spirit of the times in the late 1970s.  Two things I had forgotten (my last visit was in 1978): how violent and depressing those times were (especially when you understand the usually-indomitable spirit of the Lebanese), and how adept at cussing the Lebanese were…

Seems like the whole idea of post-mil theology is fraught with the same complications as believing in an Arminian “age of accountability.”  At what point do we break out the theological lawn chairs and wait for prophetical fireworks?  Whose maps do we use to determine that we have successfully evangelized the entire planet?  Or galaxy, if we can manage to emigrate beyond this tiny blue ball…

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Beyond Iraq?

 Gov. Huckabee,

 Thank you for taking time to respond to my concerns re. your position on the war in Iraq.  I saw you this morning on MSNBC and when asked what you are currently reading, you mentioned “Beyond Iraq” by Mike Evans. Very disappointing. An excerpt from Publishers Weekly says this:

With the Bible’s various prophecies of the downfall of Babylon, one would think Christian eschatologists would have a field day with the war in Iraq. But apart from a few perfunctory prophetic exegeses — Jeremiah’s “arrows of expert warriors” are laser-guided bombs, the “plunderers of the North” are looters at Iraq’s National Museum, Isaiah’s “chariot of men with horses” is an Abrams tank — this poorly organized, fundamentalist screed touts the Bible less as a crystal ball than as a rationale for a Wolfowitzian grand strategy against the Muslim world. On the temporal plane, Evans argues that the U. S. should use its control of Iraqi oil to break OPEC, and employ Iraq as a base (“only a short reach from the throat of Syria and Iran”) for the war on terrorism. On the spiritual plane, because Islam is “a religion conceived in the pit of hell” and terrorism is orchestrated by demons, he advocates the use of Christian prayers summoning angelic intervention to root out the evils of terror and Islamic fanaticism. Evans, founder of the Jerusalem Prayer Team ministry and author of Why Christians Should Support Israel, is especially concerned with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He opposes Bush’s “road map” initiative and insists that God apportioned the West Bank and Gaza to the Jews of the land of Israel, whose modern consolidation is a prerequisite for the Second Coming. Evans’s one-sided account of Middle East conflicts, based on fancifully symbolic readings of obscure Bible passages, concedes virtually no legitimate grievances or non-demonically inspired motivations to Muslims and Palestinians. His book is a disturbing addition to the debate on these critical areas of U. S. foreign policy.

“Beyond Iraq” was written back in the 2003, when Fundamentalists were giddy about the prospects of a new crusade against Islam.  Mike Evans’ new book is titled “The Final Move Beyond Iraq” which is a call to Christians to pray (like Daniel) that our government will take action against Iran. The subtitle is “The Final Solution While the World Sleeps.” Scary, ain’t it, to think that a serious presidential candidate like you is reading such codswallop about “Final Solutions.”

You know, my father participated in the last big war which featured a “final solution.”  He was an Army Air Corps navigator on a B-17 bomber near the end of WW2.  He went on from that experience to get the same Southern Baptist seminary training that I’m assuming you received in order to become a minister.  He then spent the next 40 years in the Middle East as a career missionary and educator with the now-defunct Foreign Mission Board.  I was born and raised among the very people that pop-evangelists like Mike Evans so easily demonize.  It distresses (and galls) me that so many Americans have been fooled by the literary antics of flim-flam men who twist and torture the Bible into a manifesto for occupation and oppression.  Our unnecessary war and our unrestrained enthusiasm for whatever Israel wants and does has undone nearly two centuries of positive American influence in the region.  American Presbyterian missionaries were serving in the Middle East before Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and American Baptists were working in Palestine before Israel became a reality in 1948.  I wonder how often Mike Evans and the other peddlars of Zionism mention that, or the traditions of co-existence between Christians, Jews, and Muslims that lasted for a millennium until the West began carving up their post-Ottoman spoils of WW1?  I wonder, did you visit the Baptist church in Gaza on your last carefully-guided tour of the “Holy Land?”

If you’re interested in a gentle primer on the realities of the Muslim world, I suggest you turn to our Canadian neighbors.  Spend a little time on and watch reruns of last season’s “Little Mosque on the Prairie.”  The Canadians get it.  Instead of demonizing what they don’t understand (or because they know that greater understanding will conflict with another agenda), they laugh about it.  And in the middle of the laughter, you’ll come away with a better understanding of the common humanity we all share.  It’s an amazing little show, and you’ll be a better candidate for watching it.

 [Monsieur d’Nalgar] 


From: Huckabee Mike []
Sent: Tuesday, June 19, 2007 4:49 PM
Subject: Iraq, War on Terror

Dear [Monsieur d’Nalgar],

Thank you for taking the time to write to me and share your perspectives on the war and your concerns over how and why it has been waged. I agree with you wholeheartedly that this administration has made several mistakes in prosecuting this war, and I believe many of them are the result of not respecting the assessments of our intelligence agencies and not approaching the issue with a solid understanding of both the political and cultural dynamics of Iraqi society. This resulted in poor planning for the reconstruction and securing of a post-Sadam Iraq, and created the mess there which now threatens to create a regional war. As Commander and Chief, I will never wage war based on how I want it to be won, but the way my generals and the relevant intelligence experts tell me it can be won.

I know there is a lot of controversy over the justifications for invading Iraq, but at this point the reasons our current president had for starting this war are not relevant to what has to be done by our next president to win it. The reality of the situation is that we have created for ourselves the responsibility of protecting Iraqis from terrorists, and destroying the “incubator of terrorism” that has developed since we took over. We simply cannot afford to leave the country in the condition it is in now, for that will only guarantee that our forces have to be redeployed there under even worse conditions. As president I will not shirk our responsibility to quell the violence in Iraq nor dishonor the sacrifice of our fallen soldiers by leaving the job unfinished. It is vital to our national security and that of our allies, as well as to the future stability of the Middle East.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts on the subject, and for your interest in my campaign. I hope you will visit my website to learn more about my positions on Iraq and the War on Terror, as well as other important issues facing our nation.


Mike Huckabee

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Amazing Grace

 Thanks for sending the review, it was very interesting.  To me, it sounds like the biggest beef the writer has is that the movie isn’t the one he wanted it to be.  He reminds me of someone who knows so much about the subject matter that he nitpicks every deviation from absolute historical accuracy.  Amazing Grace is not a documentary.  No doubt it occasionally distorts and compresses the facts in order to tell a good story.  That’s what movies do.  Going in, I was ignorant about this period in British politics.  I came out wanting to know much more about Wilberforce, and even more about the secondary characters in the film.  That was why I bought Metaxis’ book, which the reviewer grudgingly compliments in one of his footnotes.

The complaint about the marketing campaign’s gross distortions of John Newton’s conversion don’t belong in a serious movie review.  John Newton was the one character I already knew something about so I, too, would have dismissed the advance publicity as a cheap PR ploy by a third-rate hack writer.  The language employed does suggest that the studio attempted to promote the film to Christian groups the same way that Mel Gibson so successfully sold his movie about Jesus’ execution.  Perhaps the reviewer has a problem with the gimmicks used to push Amazing Grace through religious channels, but if we judged all movies by their previews and posters, our judgments would be sorely skewed and nearly always inaccurate.  I found Albert Finney’s performance as Newton fascinating and true to the spirit of the famous song he wrote (by which the movie is titled).

The reviewer also complained about Wilberforce’s apparently misogynist views that women were to be obedient and silent (a stereotypical fundamentalist view that is largely ignorant of real Biblical females), based on part of a single letter written much later in his life.  However, the review and the movie and the book all mention his close friendship with Hannah More, a most-liberated woman of her day.  So which was it?  Seems to me that the reviewer has fallen into the common trap of trying to examine and pass judgment on the behaviors and motivations of historical characters based on current sensibilities.

I did not know anything about who financed Amazing Grace (and Ray and Chronicles of Narnia).  The reviewer’s suggestions as to why Philip Anschutz wanted this movie made are completely speculative.  The fact that this filthy-rich tycoon admires Wilberforce, along with a lot of right-wing politicians named in the review, seems to be the real reason the reviewer is so antagonistic towards Wilberforce.  His hostility is misdirected; the dead cannot choose their future admirers.  If it was Anschutz’s intent to finance a movie that would gently remind people that only the wealthiest Republicans are suited to govern, then he failed miserably.

To me, Amazing Grace was a clarion call to defy the establishment no matter what it costs or how long it takes, hardly a Republican theme.  Throughout the background of the movie is a government in turmoil because of a failed war in a faraway land.  Hardly something you’d want to remind your audience of if the movie is nothing but a bit of clever propaganda.  That Wilberforce did not take on every cause the reviewer is passionate about is no excuse to diminish what he did accomplish.  And that brings me full circle to what I think the reviewer was most upset about.  Whether good or bad, Amazing Grace was not the movie he wanted it to be.

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For whom do I write?

 …by Lebanese poet, Musa Shu`ayb, about the 1967 defeat.  Written in 1967 and translated/posted by As’ad at  

“For whom do I write?
Do I wrote about you,
o my homeland
Do I write my sadness and bitterness
and the hopes of millions
that were buried without coffins?
Do I write about our history
which is mixed with mold
and on a time
when we lived outside of time
For whom do I write?
If I sob, they would
say a mourning poet
And if I act stoic,
they would say:
a lying outbidder
For whom do I write?
My comrades are
sellers on the market
mercenary right-wingers
leftists on paper
For whom do I write?
And rats are around me
biting what I write…
Because living in my country
is without a price
People in my country die
without a price
I heard a song yesterday
I heard a song on the radio
praising the nation of the Arabs
sanctifying the revolt of flames
spilling over with the curse of eras
I was ashamed that I was
my father’s son
I read yesterday about a man
He is named Che Guevara
He was mourned in my homeland
People cried over his death
in my homeland
They told stories about him…
and said poetry about him
Not one, of the revolutionaries
of my homeland
threw away his cup of coffee
abandoned his girlfriend
ignored the hair of his beard
Not one revolutionary,
threw his chair on the floor
walked toward death
distorting the suns of the equator
in order that flags of liberty
fly over these lands…
For whom do I write?
For the generation of dancing
in dark rooms
for the sick of Hamra street
where the revolution is planned
for Guevara who was named
a legend in Lebanon
So that they appear blameless
he became a legend
And the days of legends
have long gone in this East
For whom do I write?
I will write for the refugees…
for those who carry the sins of
for those who wash the shame
of civilizations and the sinners
with hunger, nakedness,
tears, and blood
And no homeland except
wind of illusion
and no shelter except
the humiliation of tents
I will write for those who are tired
Sprinkling on their horizon
my exhausted poetry
and swearing by death…
I will not lie.”

PS — according to this post, Musa Shu`ayb was assassinated by agents of the Syrian regime in 1980.

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For your consideration

 Good letter, but the worst of it is the massive loss of Iraqi life, the mass exodus of Iraq’s best-educated and experienced citizens, the unending lack of basic civil infrastructure throughout Iraq, and (worst of all for us Americans who don’t really care about anyone but lily-white Anglo-Christians) the establishment of a “terrorism incubator” that will hatch horrific acts of violence for the next century or two.

The loss of our “best and brightest” is an abiding shame, but it pales in significance with what we have wrought “over there.”  I truly hope that most of our centurions are altruistic and selfless, but I have a deep suspicion, borne of years of seeing a mean streak of publically acceptable anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bigotry in this nation, that too many of them are cruel and intolerant towards the people they have conquered.

What really rankles is this administration’s (and others before it) deliberate blindness towards the root of the problem throughout the Middle East, especially in the face of overt American favoritism towards colonial Jews from Europe and privileged despots in the region who conveniently produce most of the world’s oil.  More than sixty years of unabated Palestinian injustice is the untreated infection that festers throughout the Arab “street” because it mirrors their daily grind of poverty and lack of opportunity and denied dignity.

 The war in Iraq is a manifestation of our failure to address root causes.  It will not be the last if we continue to slap band-aids on every petroleum-producing pimple while we pretend that there isn’t a much greater problem lurking below the surface.

Sent: Friday, June 01, 2007 5:57 AM
Subject: For your consideration

Memorial Day 2007

Nothing feels worse than being played for a fool.  It strikes at the soul like little else; this thing of trusting someone at their word and then finding out you were deceived.  I guess that’s why, on this Memorial Day, so many Americans feel such bitterness and resentment toward the Bush/Cheney Whitehouse.

Thinking back to those oh-so-assured words of the imminent threat of Saddam Hussein, and his role in the September 11th attacks, now fills the heart with disgust.  We were sold a sparkling Buick that turned out to have a bad engine and sawdust filled transmission.  The intelligence that contradicted or questioned the dire projections were never heard, and the warnings of the consequence of an Iraq invasion by the experts were conveniently omitted from the discussion.  In his obsession to make war on Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush played us for fools, went in half-cocked and disregarded the multiple warnings of prudent counselors.

The worst of it is the loss of our best and brightest.  These valiant and idealistic young men and women, represent the best of us.  Their altruism and selflessness are the stuff of legends.  To have their lives squandered so pitilessly by such naïve and shortsighted men is the poison in the pill. 

Many of us were aware that Saddam Hussein sent a team of assassins into Kuwait who failed to assassinate the first President Bush.  We never knew it would have such lingering consequence on “the avenger” in the Bush clan, his oldest son.

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