Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Keith Olbermann Sees Red Over Buck O'Neil

I love Keith Olbermann, truly--he's the TV personality I'd miss more than any other if he were thrown off the air, not excluding Jon Stewart. But he's going a bit off the deep end about Black baseball star Buck O'Neil. He has now devoted two segments to the failure of the special Negro Leagues committee to elect O'Neil to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and promises at least one more, with O'Neil himself as guest. For Keith, this appears to be an outrage equalled only by Bush's lying to get us into Iraq.

On tonight's Countdown, Olbermann said he is tempted to resign from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) on the ground that several of its members were part of the committee that declined to elect O'Neil. He even put guest Ernie Banks on the spot by asking him whether he'd consider resigning from the Hall of Fame itself over the snub. (Banks said, "I've thought about it, definitely." What else could he say under the circumstances? He was on the show to praise his old friend and mentor O'Neil and support Olbermann's campaign.)

I have nothing against Buck O'Neil. He's a delightful personality and a great ambassador for the game, as anyone knows who has seen the Ken Burns documentary about baseball or any of O'Neil's many other appearances as one of the last surviving heroes of the Negro Leagues. But that doesn't make him a Hall of Famer, although writers like this one are joining Olbermann in claiming it does. If we're voting for guys who are beloved ambassadors of the game, then let's put Mookie Wilson in the Hall of Fame.

When I turn to experts who know much more about baseball history than I do, I don't find O'Neil treated as an all-time superstar. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranks O'Neil fourth among Negro League first basemen and compares him to big leaguers Mark Grace and Mickey Vernon--good ballplayers, but no Hall of Famers. (Don't think that James is shy about praising Negro Leaguers; in the same discussion, he likens Buck Leonard to Henry Aaron, Pop Lloyd to Honus Wagner, and Turkey Steares to Ted Williams.)

In his classic Negro League history Only the Ball Was White, scholar Robert Peterson barely mentions O'Neil (he doesn't appear in the book's index) and omits him from his list of three all-time Negro League first basemen. And when we scan the rosters for the annual Negro League all-star games (which were held every year of O'Neil's career), we see that he played in the game just twice. By contrast, Biz Mackey and Willard Brown, both elected by the special committee, played in four and six games, respectively, while true superstars like Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Willie Wells (already Hall of Famers) played in eight or ten.

As a comparison, Kevin Mitchell and Ozzie Virgil, for example, also played in two all-star games (in the major leagues, of course). Are they Hall of Famers?

I'm not saying there's no Hall of Fame case to be made for Buck O'Neil. He was also a successful manager in the Negro Leagues and a fine scout who helped to recruit some of the great Black stars for the majors. But there's no way you can consider him a shoo-in whose exclusion is a gross miscarriage of justice--"the worst mistake in the history of the Hall of Fame," as Keith would have it.

I love Keith's passion. But he should save it for the mistakes that really deserve it, like the ones he (thankfully) covers in most of the rest of his show. Funny how this refugee from ESPN seems to be on more solid ground when he rants about Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Bill O'Reilly than when he turns back to sports.

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Chris Matthews Loses It Altogether

I heard Chris Matthews say this the other day but I didn't comment on it because, frankly, I couldn't believe my ears: In defending the United Arab Emirates port deal, Bush is emerging as a hero in the mold of Atticus Finch?! (Atticus Finch, you recall, is the liberal southern lawyer played by Gregory Peck in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, recently named as the number one movie hero of all time.)

Let's acknowledge that Bush, like Finch, can be given credit for sticking to a position despite popular disapproval. But don't we have to take the substance of the issue into account? Bush is insisting that a group of oil-rich businessmen have every right to complete a multi-billion-dollar deal to manage import/export facilities halfway around the globe. How similar is that, exactly, to defending a poor Black man from an angry southern town that has unjustly accused him of raping a white woman? Does it take as much courage for a president to brush aside criticism from members of Congress as it takes for a lone, unarmed family man to face down a lynch mob carrying shotguns?

Hey, we all say silly things from time to time. If I was on TV every day I'd utter a few lulus, I'm sure. But this isn't just silly--it's borderline nuts.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Forms of Grace

Jazz critic Stanley Crouch offers a nice dual appreciation of Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire on Slate. But I was brought up short by this sentence:

He [Astaire] remains more pure than all categories because of his ability, in motion, to transform all things through grace, which is the fundamental dream beneath the gaudy exterior of American civilization.

This describes Astaire's dancing well, I think. But the idea that the transformation of all things through grace is the fundamental American dream strikes me as stunningly counterintuitive. Is "grace" the keynote of the New York skyline, or of Coney Island, Disney World, or the Vegas Strip? Of the great American movies (Godfather, Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now)? Of rock 'n' roll or hip hop? Of Whitman or Dickinson or Plath? Of Twain or Faulkner? Of Pollock or O'Keeffe? Of R. Crumb or Lenny Bruce?

I don't see it. If I had to choose one word that summarizes what these quintessential American artifacts have in common, I might choose "energy" or "power," or (more darkly) "ambiguity," "irony," "self-destructiveness," or even "violence." But "grace"? I don't get it.

I would like it if the grace of Fred Astaire had laid out a path for American civilization. But in fact, as the years pass, he seems to me more and more peripheral. Few people of my kids' generations (X and Y) seem to care for him at all. Thirty years from now, I suspect his name will evoke very little for the average American. Which is a shame.

Meanwhile, Mary-Jo brings home from Sephora a tiny packet of "perfume solid" bearing the brand name "Amazing Grace" and adorned with the slogan, "in the end, it all comes down to one word. grace."

Her comment: "Of course that's what it all comes down to, because it's the brand name and they want you to buy it." (Which she did, but despite the slogan, not because of it.)

Maybe this is the sense in which "grace" is the fundamental dream of American civilization: grace as marketing.

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The Journal Gives Author Jimmy Carter His Due

Well, I'm relieved. Ever since Jeff Trachtenberg, who covers the publishing industry for the Wall Street Journal, interviewed me about my work with Jimmy Carter, I've been awaiting the article nervously, hoping I wouldn't be quoted in some way that made me sound dopey, conceited, or mean-spirited. (I was also concerned about how Carter would appear, but of course that was secondary--this is my life, so it's all about me, me, me!)

Today the article is out (no link, but it appears on page A1 of the Journal's Weekend Edition). And it turns out that I am not quoted at all, which is mildly disappointing but ultimately fine. (I would have liked a little mention--after all my years in publishing I still get a tiny frisson from seeing my name in print--but silence is much better than something embarrassing.) After a slightly snarky title ("I, Jimmy," which seems to suggest a hubris on the part of Carter that the article itself doesn't support), the piece is a basically positive and (I think) quite accurate account of Carter's very successful post-presidential career as an author. Good job by Trachtenberg. (In my past experience, newspaper writers usually get several things wrong. Not this time, as far as I can see.)

Unsurprisingly, the best anecdotes in the article are attributed to my friend Peter Osnos, who introduced me to President Carter when I worked for Peter at Times Books, then an imprint of Random House. Peter is a great raconteur and has a stronger memory than I--as someone once remarked (fittingly I can't remember who), I could hide my own Easter eggs. Peter's memoirs, if he ever writes them, will make great reading, much better than mine.

For what it's worth, the best little anecdote I offered Trachtenberg about the former president was probably the one dealing with our exchange of e-mails after Carter received his long-overdue Nobel Prize. I wrote him, "Congratulations on your Nobel Prize for Peace. As your editor, I'm rooting for you to win one for Literature next." Carter wrote back, "It's a good thing I didn't have to choose--I'm not sure which I'd prefer." Not an earth-shattering revelation, but a nicely humanizing vignette of the great man, I'd say.

Now for a prediction: Within the next five days, the Journal will run several letters about Trachtenberg's article. One or two will be positive, praising Carter's writing and perhaps mentioning a personal encounter with him. The others will feature sarcastic attacks on his performance as president. This is the Wall Street Journal, after all.

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Republicans and the Race Card

Via the redoubtable Matt Yglesias at The American Prospect, this reminder of a simpler time when conservatives weren't accusing liberals of being "racist" for worrying about links between the United Arab Emirates and terrorism.

Come to think of it, didn't Rudolph Giuliani get all kinds of conservative props for righteously rejecting an Arab donation to the Twin Towers Fund? Remember when Republicans used to crow delightedly about how such gestures were a much-deserved rebuke to the wimpish advocates of political correctness--the liberal weenies who opposed racial profiling and other such essential get-tough measures?

But all that was long, long ago . . . if it ever happened at all. Haven't we always been at war with Eurasia?

I think my rule still stands: When conservatives start accusing other people of "racism," take a long second look at what they are really saying. The real message can usually be summarized in three words: "Shut up, liberals."

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Friday, February 24, 2006

A Conservative's Honesty: Too Little, Too Late

As you've probably noticed, Bruce Bartlett is everywhere lately, promoting his new book Imposter, which denounces George W. Bush as a phony conservative and a betrayer of the Reagan legacy.

I heard Bartlett being interviewed by Leonard Lopate on WNYC, the New York outlet of NPR, and naturally I enjoy witnessing Bush being undermined by his erstwhile supporters. (The weaker Bush is, the less further damage he is likely to do.) But I must say I am unimpressed by the timing of Bartlett's apostacy. In the interview, Bartlett made it clear that he was ready to denounce Bush before the 2004 election and only held back because he didn't want to influence the voters.

Sure enough, a look at Bartlett's 2004 archive reveals that he spent the year bashing Kerry and tip-toeing around his growing disagreements with the Bush administration. And yes, greater frankness from Bartlett and his fellow right-wing pundits might have had a practical impact: The election was so close that even a mini-trend like a small wave of disgruntled conservatives refusing to vote might have tipped a state or two.

Now, I understand that Bartlett dislikes John Kerry even more than he dislikes Bush. But wasn't it at least disingenuous, if not dishonest, for Bartlett to withhold his true feelings about Bush until after the November voting? In effect, Bartlett was saying, "I am sophisticated enough to recognize the flaws in Bush's presidency while also mastering the exquisite moral calculus that reveals Bush to be the lesser of two evils. Therefore it's safe for me to know the truth about Bush. But if the unwashed masses out there get wind of it, they might do something stupid--like elect a Democrat. So it's better to withhold the facts until next year, when the danger will be past."

Cheesy behavior, wouldn't you say? Aren't conservatives the ones who continually berate us "elitist" liberals for not trusting the people to make their own best choices?

But, then, modern conservatism isn't really about trusting the people--nor is it about fiscal responsibility or individual liberty or a strong defense. It's about seizing and retaining political power. Bruce Bartlett's anguished conservative conscience had to remain under wraps for a year lest it interfere with that fundamental goal.

Question: How many years from now will the conservatives decide it's safe to tell us what they really think about Iraq? or warrantless wiretaps? or Guantanamo? or the Patriot Act . . . ?

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Bennett and Dershowitz--Global Busy-Bodies

In today's WaPo, Bill Bennett and Alan Dershowitz join forces to denounce the mainstream media for failing to "do its duty" by reprinting the controversial cartoons depicting Mohammed.

As I discussed here, I consider this position typical rightwing blowhardism--picking fights that others will suffer for. But today's column illustrates another all-too-common fallacy I wish we could scotch once and for all. Here's the key graf:

Since the war on terrorism began, the mainstream press has had no problem printing stories and pictures that challenged the administration and, in the view of some, compromised our war and peace efforts. The manifold images of abuse at Abu Ghraib come to mind -- images that struck at our effort to win support from Arab governments and peoples, and that pierced the heart of the Muslim world as well as the U.S. military.

Bennett and Dershowitz think that the willingness of the American press to publish such materials while refraining from reprinting anti-Islamic images reflects a hypocritical double standard. It's the same argument conservatives use against Americans who protest US policies (such as torture, invasions, violations of privacy, etc.): "Why don't these people demonstrate against foreign regimes that are much worse?" The idea is that Americans who protest Guantanamo are hypocritical if they don't spend the same amount of time picketing outside the embassies of China, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Cuba . . . name your favorite evil regime.

Listen, guys--the reason it's not hypocritical to focus our energies on American misdeeds is very simple. We're Americans. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Gonzalez represent us. We pay their salaries and provide the tanks, bombs, and guns they deploy. Our kids fight and die in the wars they start. Of course we care more about what they do than about what the Iranian mullahs or Fidel Castro do. And of course we consider it more important to expose their crimes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo than to tweak the hypersensitivities of Middle Eastern Islamists. As American citizens, we're responsible for the crimes of our government. We have no such responsibility for the behavior of the Islamists.

One of the annoying traits of contemporary conservatism is the way they get the isolationism/engagement issue exactly backward. They want Americans to diss the world by abrogating treaties, ignoring foreign opinion, sidestepping the UN and the World Court, and mocking international law. At the same time, they insist that we should be imposing "our" values (actually their personal values) on other countries through economic pressure, proselytizing, and even invasion.

In other words, they abhor international cooperation while demanding international busy-bodyism. What kind of neighbors does this make us? Is it any wonder that this approach has been getting us into deeper and deeper trouble in Iraq and around the world?

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Business First, Business Last, Business Forever

It's startling to see Bush threatening to veto any bill that would halt the Dubai port management deal, especially with the rising tide of Republican opposition (now including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist). Why would Bush dig in his heels so deep on what is fundamentally a minor matter? (This would be the very first veto of his entire presidency.) It's not as though he hasn't flipped on much bigger issues in the past (such as the creation of the Department of Homeland Security), usually without paying any political price.

It suggests to me the degree to which Bush's deepest instinctive commitment--even deeper than his commitment to increasing the political power of the Republican Party--is to the unfettered practice of business. It seems that Bush is genuinely shocked and offended by the notion of any limits to laissez-faire. Thus, when the goals of "national security" and "protecting Americans" to which Bush pays lip service conflict with business as usual, business instantly wins. And when his fellow Republicans challenge this priority, Bush vows to apply the full power of his office to its defense, as if the issue represents the true rock-bottom of his personal values. Which I guess it does.

As for the substance of the controversy: I sought an opinion from Michael Cherkasky, president and CEO of the Marsh & McLennan Companies, former president of the firm's Kroll security division, and author of a good book about homeland security, Forewarned: Why the Government Is Failing to Protect Us--and What We Must Do to Protect Ourselves. (Full disclosure: I served as a consulting editor on the book, which is how I know Mike.) Published in 2003 by Ballantine Books, Forewarned included a detailed analysis of the port security problem, which Mike was one of the first to highlight post-9/11.

Mike responded to my email query about the Dubai deal this way:

We are more and more ceding our critical infrastructure to global companies, and they will do what is in their, or their owners', best interest. So I do indeed have a problem with this. It is like the English having the Krupps make their barbed wire before the First World War.

(Mike hastened to add that, in fact, the English did not outsource their defenses to the Germans before WWI--which of course is precisely Mike's point.)

On CNN, Jimmy Carter gave the deal his blessing. But his argument seemed to be based on the assumption that the Bush administration had thoroughly vetted the Dubai company that will take over the ports. It has been years since I assumed that the Bush administration has been thorough, competent, or unbiased in any of its dealings, so I can't follow Carter's reasoning there . . .

I don't know anyone with more informed or balanced judgment about homeland security issues than Mike Cherkasky. So if he thinks the Dubai deal is dangerous, I'm inclined to agree.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Race, Bryant Gumbel, and Conservative Hypocrisy

It can be tough to be a liberal sports fan. The latest example of conservative posturing in the sports world centers on certain "controversial" remarks about the Winter Olympics by Bryant Gumbel on his talk show Real Sports. Actually, just one sentence was controversial--see if you can spot it:

Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don't care about them and won't watch them. In fact, I figure that when Thomas Paine said that "these are the times that try men's souls," he must've been talking about the start of another Winter Olympics. Because they're so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world's greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the winter games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something's not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what's called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won. And try to blot out all logic when announcers and sportswriters pretend to care about the luge, the skeleton, the biathlon and all those other events they don't understand and totally ignore for all but three weeks every four years. Face it--these Olympics are little more than a marketing plan to fill space and sell time during the dreary days of February. So if only to hasten the arrival of the day they're done, when we can move on to March Madness--for God's sake, let the games begin.

As you probably guessed, the brouhaha focuses on the sentence that combines the words "blacks" and "GOP," which is the kind of combination that gets some people's dander up.

A fair summary of the right-wing reaction is this column by Chris Russell in The Sporting News. Demanding "an all out boycott of at the very minimum, all HBO Sports programming," Russell calls Gumbel's comments "blatantly racist." The heart of Russell's "argument," such as it is, appears here:

The comment about the Olympics not having the world's greatest athletes because of the lack of black athletes is a flat-out joke. Sure, a good deal of the worlds greatest athletes are not in Torino, but a lot of them are.

Oh, that's right. NHL players, world class figure skaters, Shaun White and Ted Ligety must not be any good because they're not black. I guess that's what Gumbel means.

You can twist Gumbel's words however you want too, and I'm sure a lot of you will. You will hammer me and call me all sorts of names because I took major offense to Gumbel's commentary.

What you can't do is ignore the absolute damning criticism by Gumbel that would never be accepted if Gumbel were white and said he would not watch the NBA because of the lack of non-black players. Imagine if I went on Sporting News Radio and said the NBA is impossible to watch because there are too many blacks, or if I said the reason why I have an incredible passion for hockey is because the player pool is overwhelmingly white. You would want my head on a platter, with knife in hand.

Where do I begin to respond? How about here:

Like many conservatives, Russell is eager to portray himself as a courageous dissident standing up against the repressive forces of political correctness. Unfortunately, the facts tell a different story. Despite Russell's claim that there is some kind of taboo against mentioning (for example) race and basketball, a quick Google search keyed to "NBA marketing racial" reveals many articles about the problems of selling a Black-dominated NBA, including this one, this one, this one, this one, this one . . . You can find more if you go past the first twenty-four Google hits (out of the 194,000 my search unearthed).

Funny, I don't recall any journalists being fired or reprimanded for raising the issue. So relax, Chris--no one will be asking for your "head on a platter."

The truth is that conservative sports-talk hosts and columnists frequently talk about race and ethnicity. For example, they are the ones who recently raised the issue of the Mets' Omar Minaya supposedly signing "too many" Latino players (to which I responded here). But they express outrage whenever race is mentioned by a minority-group member, apparently on the grounds that we've all outgrown racial issues (unless the conservatives themselves want to bring them up).

So let's start by ignoring that red herring. What about this "greatest athletes in the world" business?

Gumbel's point is that the Olympic claim to present "the greatest athletes in the world" is undermined by the lack of diversity among participants in the winter games. It's a fair observation. African, Latin American, and Caribbean nations have scanty representations in Turin; the athletes tend to be drawn strictly from the upper-middle-class levels of European, Asian, and North American society.

This is understandable--skiing and figure skating and tobogganing and the other winter sports are expensive to play. (Growing up in two working-class Brooklyn neighborhoods--mostly-black Brownsville and totally-white Bay Ridge--I never knew a single person who played any of these sports.) But isn't it obvious that a sporting spectacle that draws from a minuscule fraction of the population is unlikely to feature all or even a significant number of "the greatest athletes in the world"? This is Gumbel's point--not the absurd idea Russell attributes to him, that only Black athletes are any good.

And what about Gumbel's underlying theme--that the lack of Black athletes makes it hard for him to get interested in the Winter Olympics? Is that so "blatantly racist"?

Not according to me. Most people are especially interested in athletes and other celebrities who share some characteristic with them. Italian-Americans were proud of Joe DiMaggio and turned out in big numbers to root for him. Roberto Clemente was a hero to Puerto Ricans. Jews loved Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. This is a natural and benign phenomenon.

And the flip side is that most people find it relatively harder to get interested in sports where they can't identify with the participants. I for one find hockey--populated almost entirely by white guys, and Canadians at that!--very difficult to get into, and statistics suggest I'm not alone. Is that such a racist thing for me to say?

No . . . and it isn't racist when Bryant Gumbel says it, either.

Suggestion: Be wary when conservatives start yelling "racism." Like Russell, they wrap themselves in the "color-blind" mantle only to say, "Shut up about race--unless you want to say something that we happen to agree with."

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

How the Rules Work in Texas

Check out this interesting story by Sidney Blumenthal on Salon about the Cheney shooting in the context of "Texas royalty." My immediate reaction to the shooting was to compare it to Chappaquiddick, but Blumenthal offers an even more apt comparison that I've seen nowhere else:

The curiosities surrounding the vice president's accident have created a contemporary version of "The Rules of the Game" with a Texas twist. In Jean Renoir's 1939 film, politicians and aristocrats mingle at a country house in France over a long weekend, during which a merciless hunt ends with a tragic shooting. Appearing on the eve of World War II, "The Rules of the Game" depicted a hypocritical, ruthless and decadent ruling class that made its own rules and led a society to the edge of catastrophe.

Of course, in Renoir's film--generally regarded as one of the classic movies of all time--no one pays any price for the crimes that lead to a man's death. The rules don't apply to the elite. Does this sound familiar?

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Olympic Reflections

This year I have been particularly interested in the Olympics. I think it is from my bad habit of watching The Today Show every morning as I get ready for work.

When I was little, I loved the Olympics. I mean, LOVED. When I was five, I danced around in my basement pretending to be Katarina Witt. When I was nine, I snuck into my parents' bedroom while they were out to watch Midori Ito ice skate. I loved her because she was Japanese, and I am, after all, a quarter Japanese. And when I was 13, I watched the Nancy Kerrigan/Tanya Harding fiasco unfold.

But over the years, I have outgrown the Olympics. I became too busy with my own olympic aims: swimming, music, academics. Since I have a pretty light schedule right now, I thought it would be good to get back into the spirit of the Olympics.

Two things in particular have gotten me excited about the Olympics. My closest friends love watching figure skating, and I am always out of the loop this time of the year when they are all discussing major skating competitions. Hearing all of their excitement has made me nostalgic for the excitement I had for Katarina Witt, Midori Ito, and Kristi Yamaguchi. Also, the fact that their favorite ice skater is a Russian piqued my interest.

The second thing that has gotten me interested in the Olympics this year is TLC's Ice Diaries, a series that follows four young ice skaters who are Olympic hopefuls. None of them made the team, but it was interesting to learn more about the sport and it rekindled my admiration for ice skaters' physical ability. Also, the show did a good job of explaining what criteria skaters are judged on.

So, to the Opening Ceremonies. Much of the ceremonies were pretty boring. I couldn't help but switch to the ill-fated Arrested Development. I think that if I had been at the stadium in Turino, I would have found the ceremonies more interesting. But on TV the show lost its excitement and just seemed like a bunch of flashing lights.

The part that was great was seeing the procession of the athletes. I was inspired by the achievements of all of the athletes and you could see the pride on many of the athletes' faces in being there.

I thought it was interesting to see how many of the countries represented were part of the Soviet bloc. (This is the winter games, so the former Soviet bloc is at a geographical advantage--especially with the famous communist enthusiasm for athletics.) It seemed as though every few countries we saw a Moldova, a Belarus, an Uzbekistan. This representation made me realize (for the millionth time) how vast the Soviet bloc was. What a huge empire! What a huge ideology that swept across Eastern Europe and ravaged so many nations! I wonder what these athletes think as they go to the Olympics and are able to represent their own countries, rather than their colonizers. Do they feel pride? Do they feel relief? Do they miss being part of an empire that once dominated the Olympics? Or are they excited that they can actually be at the Olympics without having to beat out some Latvian?

On a similar note, it was very interesting to see the different Chinese delegations. Besides China, there were also Chinese Hong Kong and Chinese Tai Pei. My Taiwanese and Chinese friends explained that China wants to make an example of Hong Kong to show Taiwan that it, too, can be part of China but also have some independence. Judging from my friends' discussion, this has little potential of working.

It is interesting to me how much geography, culture, and international politics you can learn by watching the opening Olympic ceremonies. The Olympics are made into a big country-versus-country event, and I wonder how much athletes relate to that. I personally do not relate to it, although I consider myself a patriot. I often find myself rooting for Russians or whoever is the underdog. It is rare that I want someone to win simply because they are American.

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Inspiring Story of My Miserable Life

One of the more pathetic bits of fallout from the James Frey brouhaha was a viewer email I spotted on one of the cable news shows (Anderson Cooper I think). It read something like this:

The real tragedy of the Frey scandal is that publishers will be discouraged from publishing honest memoirs by people with truly important stories to tell. My son is a recovering drug addict and he has written . . .

I lost my focus at that point. As anyone who has ever spent a couple of hours scanning the "slush pile" (unsolicited submissions) of a publishing house can tell you, there is no end to the number of people who have written / are writing / plan to write / dream of writing their stories of recovery from drug addiction / child abuse / alcoholism / bankruptcy / marital violence / schizophrenia / nymphomania / uncontrolled gambling . . . As you might guess, 99.4 percent of the resulting manuscripts are semi-literate, cliche-ridden, boring, and (I suspect) not fully truthful. They get the amount of attention they deserve from the unfortunate editorial underlings whose job it is to wade through the flood of over-the-transom proposals--namely, about ten seconds apiece. (Well, the ones about nymphomania probably get a couple of minutes more.)

I guess James Frey has done all these people a favor. They (and their mothers) can now go to their graves convinced that their unpublished manuscripts would have been best-sellers that changed the lives of millions if only that S.O.B. Frey hadn't soured the publishers on memoirs. It's yet another way in which an unfeeling world has screwed them! (Based on the cover letters I've read, half of them believe that their story has been suppressed because of pressure from the CIA, the American Psychiatric Association, or the Catholic Church.)

I don't mean to make fun of these would-be authors. (Well, just a little.) Writing one's life story is probably a natural human instinct and certainly one of the most harmless pastimes imaginable. Their friends and families might even find the books that result interesting and inspiring. So more power to them.

If the phenomenon of the spill-your-guts memoir is of any interest, it's primarily because of the things it tells us about America today:

1. The idea that being mentally disturbed or a criminal is something to be ashamed of and hidden is in rapid retreat, thanks (I imagine) to Oprah and her lesser compatriots. This must be a good thing--not necessarily for the world of literature, but for people's psychological and emotional health. I imagine that talking about your problems increases the chances you'll get the help you need.

2. Those who still regard their disordered lives as a stigma ought to disabuse themselves of the suspicion that every other family is as happy and "normal" as they appear. They're not. Both life experience and the testimony of the slush pile make it clear that every family has experienced trauma and tragedy--suicide, addiction, violence, crime, etc. etc. So if you've been going around feeling embarrassed and guilty about some family secret, give it up already and join the rest of us who have accepted the fact that practically everybody is either seriously screwed up or loves someone who is.

3. Most discouragingly for book publishers: The number of people who want to write books is probably greater than the number who actually read books. We're largely a nation of Pete Rose wannabes. (After Rose's second ghost-written autobiography was published, a sportswriter quipped, "Pete has written more books than he's read.") Which is one reason why some publishers don't even look at unsolicited manuscripts or proposals any longer (unless submitted through a recognized literary agent).

I think there's an idea for a reality TV show here: Slush Pile, featuring a panel of editors sifting hundreds of wretched proposals in search of one with a glimmer of craft and originality. Obviously we'll need a Simon Cowell-type who can come up with fresh and witty ways to eviscerate (and generate audience sympathy for) the poor hopefuls whose efforts fall short. It's a clever concept and I'd submit it to one of the networks if not for the fact that their slush piles are even deeper and more hopeless than the ones at the book publishers.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cartoon Violence

Sorry not to have posted earlier about the great Mohammed cartoon controversy, but I find the whole thing such a bummer--one of those stories devoid of heroes that seems to offer very little hope of anything positive coming out of it. The extreme Muslim response is of course deplorable, but the cartoons themselves are pretty witless and difficult to defend. (If you haven't seen them, they're available on the excellent BAGnewsNotes blogsite, which specializes in analysis of photos and art from the news--you might also enjoy the tart comments about Bush's behavior at the Coretta Scott King memorial service.)

Oh, for the good old days of the First Amendment, when standing up for freedom of the press meant defending Ulysses or Lady Chatterly's Lover rather than Hustler magazine or the Danish publisher of the allegedly "satiric" cartoons whose sole purpose seems to have been to cause an intercultural furor.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of whole affair is the current revival of the concept of "blasphemy," which it once seemed the human race was in the process of outgrowing. (Then again, as George Orwell pointed out, by the mid-nineteenth century it appeared that we had outgrown the concept of slavery, only to find it revived on a massive scale by the Fascist and Communist regimes of the twentieth century.) The idea that a disrespectful or offensive statement about God ought to be a crime punishable by civil government is plainly based on a superstitious belief in the magical power of words or symbols to damage people's souls. Hearing charges of "blasphemy" seriously raised and used to defend violence and threats of violence in the year 2006 seems just plain weird. What's next, witchcraft trials?

On the other hand, I have no use for the likes of Charles Krauthammer, the right-wing pundit who is urging newspapers around the world to reprint the anti-Muslim cartoons as a gesture of solidarity with the beleaguered Danish publisher. (And there have been a few reprints supposedly driven by that motive.) I understand that most people choose which civil liberties causes to defend based on whose ox is gored, and I imagine Krauthammer gets a kick out of tweaking the "Islamofascists" he and his fellow neocons like to say they are at war with. (On his blog, Andrew Sullivan has been tooting the same horn.) But what's the point of deliberately repeating the provocation that caused the ugly overreaction in the first place? Would Krauthammer go out of his way to repeatedly insult a belligerent drunk in a bar just because he has "the right" to do it?

I don't remember any left-wing pundits demanding that newspapers print images of Serrano's Piss Christ as a gesture of solidarity against the overreactions of conservative Christians. Krauthammer's exhortation is just another bit of chest-thumping from a right-wing punditocracy that enjoys throwing its weight around and picking battles for other people to fight.

Like I said, the whole story is a bummer.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Schoolyard Bully Boys Test a New Taunt

Interesting to see Republican party chairman Ken Mehlman trying out what some are calling "the shrew narrative" on Hillary Clinton, saying she is "too angry" to be president. Funny . . . wasn't it just the other day that the Republicans were denouncing John Kerry for being too dispassionate about terrorism when he said it could be reduced to just "a nuisance"--in other words, that Kerry was unqualified to be president because he wasn't angry enough? And if you go back a few years, do you recall how Michael Dukakis was trashed by both his opponents and the main stream media for not responding with sufficient anger to Bernard Shaw's hypothetical question about Kitty Dukakis being raped?

Back then, we were supposed to reject the Democrats because they were bloodless wimps; now, between Hillary's "anger" and Howard Dean's "insane" yawps, we're supposed to reject them because they're wild and out of control.

The point is obvious: Like the schoolyard bullies they are, the Republicans will mock their opponents for anything and everything, whether it's logical, relevant, self-contradictory or not. Under the circumstances, Hillary's calm, topic-changing response strikes me as about right. Above all, the Democrats must avoid getting tied up in knots defending themself against the Republican "charges," which are no more meaningful than a bully's taunts.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

"Boys Will Be Bad"--A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Here's an excellent op-ed column from today's Washington Post by a sex educator named Deborah Roffman about how she tries to teach her students that the sexualized images, messages, and narratives (often involving implied abuse and even violence) so prevalent in the mainstream media (including some of the commercials we will no doubt be seeing during today's Super Bowl) are actually almost as degrading to males as they are to females.

It's a great example of how we need to think and talk about real values in relation to sex and social relationships--rather than acquiescing to the manipulative, controlling, joyless, and ultimately futile anti-sex doctrines of the Christian Right.

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