January 15, 2011
Archetypes of Leadership: One, the Other, or Both?
I recently read the long and depressing book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. The book dealt with the horrors inflicted by both Hitler and Stalin, from the early 1930s to at least 1945 in Ukraine, Moldova, Poland and the Baltic nations. I learned a lot about how horrendously the Poles and Ukrainians suffered in addition to the Jews.
What caught my attention, however, was an endnote for Chapter 5,"The Economics of Apocalpse." It applies to how we analyze our current political leadership It reads,
As individuals, Hitler and Stalin embodied different forms of the early nineteenth-century German response to the Enlightenment: Hitler the tragic romantic hero who must bear the burden of leading a flawed nation, Stalin the Hegelian world spirit that reveals reason in history and dictates it to others."
So, dear readers, what about President Obama as an archetype of leadership: tragic romantic hero or Hegelian world spirit? I think he aspires for the latter and will be seen as a failure as the former.
January 14, 2011
Sarah Palin's Call and Response
With the furor over her advertising and use of the term "blood libel," Sarah Palin has entered the realm of master hypnotist and mind controller. Her every utterance provokes cries of alarum or huzzahs -- quite a feat for a woman who holds no elective office and lives on the frozen edge of the continent. Here, I'm anticipating her upcoming incendiary comments and the likely reaction from the progressive community and its toadies in parts of the mainstream press:
Palin: The sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning.
Response: You're trying to subvert the established science of holistic astronomy! Sun rises where Great Turtle in the Sky tells it to rise!
Palin: I support the State of Israel's right to exist.
Response: Accckkkk, she's a crazy Christian trying to bring the Apocalypse by goading Iran to bomb Israel!
Palin: Children can benefit from brushing their teeth at least once a day.
Response: You're nothing but a shill for the toothpaste lobby.
Palin: Teenagers should get eight hours of sleep each night.
Response: You just don't want young people to watch "The Daily Show" and learn the TRUTH about your unfathomable EVIL.
Palin: When they were very young, my kids always liked hearing me sing, "The itsy-bitsy spider went . . ."
Response: You really want to force women to get back-alley abortions, don't you?
Palin: Hunting is an effective form of wildlife management.
Response: You drink the blood of Bambi!
Palin: Todd and I had some jumbo shrimp for dinner.
Response: Ah-ha, you call yourself a friend of Israel but you eat treyf.
Palin: E = mc2
Response: Down with Zionist physics!
Palin: When friends visit, I like to use the nice china.
Response: You want to export good green jobs to China! You're a running-dog enemy of the working class!
Palin: In the summer, I enjoy floating on innertubes down rivers.
Response: She floats, she's a witch, burn her!
Palin: We hold these truths to be self-evident.
Response: Fascist supporter of white privilege!
Palin: Mark Twain wrote many classic American novels, including Huck Fi . . .
Palin: Bananas are . . .
Response: How DARE you exploit the impoverished banana harvesters!!
January 10, 2011
To see an elected representative who is זרע ישראל shot is a horrible experience. One can only hope that Gabrielle Giffords will survive and live to speak.
After responding emotionally to this event, the most reasonable step - when searching for a cause or explanation - is to discuss mental health in the United States. All the anecdotes and evidence available indicate that the murderer was mentally unstable. (I'm afraid that without a formal diagnosis, "mentally unstable" is the only terminology appropriate, though it is a rather broad assessment.) In all likelihood, he was not being treated. The fellow was living in his parents' house, and one can point to them for not being aware of his condition. Nevertheless, he was a 22 year-old man, not a boy. The parents, however, live in a world where mental health - and mental health treatment - are still too taboo.
December 31, 2010
Technology Marches On, and On
This has been the year of Facebook, both the site, the movie and for me personally, as it has become for me a primary place to post ideas and links and get feedback. Even better, to get instant feedback. If an idea catches fire, it can generate 10-20 or more comments, often veering off into unforeseen directions. The number of comments far exceeds anything I've ever garnered on Kesher Talk, although in the past some KT entries got picked up on other blogs.
This pattern led me to think on how my use of Internet media has shifted over the past decade. First came anonymous postings to sites, followed by essays on Texas to a site called the Back Word, which operated on a magazine model with articles selected and posted monthly. That led to my earliest personal essays that helped me build my confidence as an essayist with something to say.
Then the Back Word stopped publishing and even vanished from the Net -- it didn't even remain as a ghost site.
December 29, 2010
Germans and Minorities
For the first time since the fall of the Nazis it has become acceptable, in large parts of German society, to openly criticize another ethnic group. The target of this criticism is the county’s Moslem minority . Many observers, both inside and outside Germany, view this as a resurgence of Nazi era racism, with Moslems replacing Jews as the victim.
The current controversy was started by Thilo Sarrazin, a politician in the Social Democratic (center-left) party and high level official in the German equivalent of the Federal Reserve. Recently, he wrote a book, Germany Abolishes Itself. arguing that Muslims in Germany have become a burden on the general populace and despairing of integrating them into the body politic. The problem with integration, according to Sarrazin, is in some part genetic and some part cultural. The book struck a chord with a large part of the German population, reopening the debate on the place of the Muslim minority in Germany.
Sarrazin himself encapsulates the problem that Germany has with this issue.
I spent alot of time in Germany in the 80s as an employee of the German based multinational Siemens. And, as a Jew, I was particularly interested in understanding their attitude towards minorities.
What struck me most is that Germans don't really have a way to discuss ethnic issues. They live in a historically homogenous society with a horrific history of racism. They have a huge amount of shame over what their parents and grandparents did, but on the other hand, they have absolutely no experience with living in a multi ethnic society. My own experience is that many German's are deaf to the subtleties between criticizing members of a group and stereotyping. In America, we do not realize how careful and skilled we are in defining the boundaries between racism and legitimate criticism. We still argue about it, (and many people don't get it), but there are rules and principles we mostly agree on. Germans seem to swing between crude ethnic stereotypes or political correct culturally relative multiculturalism.
You cannot compare what is going on now with German anti-semitism of the Nazi era or before. The Jews of that time were not a social problem. They were thoroughly assimilated and were in no way a burden or threat to German society. By any measure, the Moslem population of Germany today presents some real social problems. Chief among these are:
* high levels of unemployment
* welfare dependency
* militancy and terrorism.
That being said, Sarrizin's talk about lower intelligence among Moslems in Germany struck me as racist. I know you can interpret it different ways (especially since I haven’t read the book), but this argument has long been a refuge for bigots. And if the problem is genes there is nothing you can do about it. You can persuade someone to stay in school, study and graduate. You cannot persuade them to change their genetic makeup. I would also bet euros to strudel that any difference in average IQ cannot explain why people become terrorists or enter into forced marriages.
His talk about Jews sharing a common gene did not bother me as much, although the language used is very crude. Claiming all Jews share a common gene is a gross oversimplification of reality. However, it is established that there are DNA sequences frequently found among Jews. The most unfortunate evidence of this is the existence of tay-sachs. A more benign example is the evidence of a Kohen DNA signature among Jews of priestly heritage. Either way, the fact that Jews share a common anscestry that reveals itself in DNA should not surprise anyone.
But it bothered lots of Germans. Somehow, talking about Jews as a race is considered racist in itself. This is another way Germans just don't get it. Jews certainly share a common ancestry. The problem with Nazis was not that they thought Jews were a separate race, but that they thought they were an inferior race that had to be destroyed.
Sarrizins' writing seems to me to come from someone addressing a real, serious problem without having the skills to distinguish between criticizing other groups and denigrating them in crude terms. And he is obviously speaking for alot of Germans.
Germans are going to have to collectively refine their social skills to deal with their current problem.
December 26, 2010
Annals of Awful Advertising: Dodge Challenger Battles the Brits
This Dodge Challenger ad debuted over the summer with some connection to the UK-US World Cup game, but I only saw it today during football games. Dodge must really like it, but I found it to be baffling in design and message, and nothing that made me want a muscle car (like I did when I was 11 years old).
The ad's ending voice-over extols the American knack for cars and freedom, after Challengers rout a British redcoat contingent during the Revolutionary War. The mournful music sounds like a riff on "Ashoken Farewell" as featured in Ken Burns's monumental series "The Civil War."
None of this sells me on any benefit of the car, and it makes me look askance at the overall message, since the British have been American allies for the last century, at least. I like a good flag-waving image as much as anybody, but this gratuitous slap at an ally, with some extremely forced and fake patriotic message, drives me away from the product. The lead car is driven by an actor dressed like George Washington, in a style that reminds me more of wretched President's Birthday sales-athon ads than something airing on national TV.
Finally, for a patriotism-drenched ad, Dodge ends it with a curious color combination. Instead of red, white and blue, the final shot shows red and black, which must be colors associated with Dodge but to me they look like some kind of raging anarchist banner, or something from Franco's Spain. The image adds the final strangeness to an ad that, if nothing else, stands out in a world of fairly bland automotive advertising.
For great car advertising, nothing beats Kia's Super Bowl ad for the Sorento, which introduced me to the song :"How Do You Like Me Now" by the Heavy. This is an ad I can watch over and over for the brilliant melding of music, imagery, cultural overtones from a half-century of movies set in Las Vegas and even the message: Expect the Unexpected.
November 28, 2010
I play many roles in life, but crazed holiday shopper is not one of them. Being Jewish and from a small family helps me step aside from the mass culture. The distance is probably healthy because I have a very mixed record as a consumer. Buying gifts for others usually works out well, either based on what these others tell me they want or my own innate sense of what they want, typically based on off-hand comments about entertainment choices that I tuck away for future use around birthdays, Hanukkah and the beautiful Jewish tradition of Valentine's Day. Vacations are surprisingly easy once I work out the destination.
The hardest person to shop for? Hands down, that is -- myself.
Except for the most random impulse buys (Pandora music service, the fall issue of the great City Journal) and groceries, I always struggle to buy myself anything. I do massive research, collect opinions, canvass friends on their suggestions and worry about whether I'm getting ripped off. Call it neurotic; I call it a sure-fire strategy for almost never buying anything.
Rich on the Rich
Although I know that Frank Rich and I don't share the same הַשׁקַפָה (hashkafa: worldview, or perspective), I read his Sunday opinion piece because I like seeing how he weaves together the variety of events that take place over the course of the week. No other columnist tries to perform a similar feat. Often, this effort leads to some interesting insights by the sheer virtue of juxtaposing issues that may not apparently have much to do with one another.
Seeing Frank Rich's opinion piece in the Sunday NYT reminded me of the 2000 presidential election, during which the left declared that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats. That view was based in the argument that both parties answer primarily to corporate money, and it became the foundation of Ralph Nader's presidential campaign. After the election, some liberals were distraught that "Bush stole the election." Others, however, were angry at the left for supporting Nader, an act which led to a loss of votes for Al Gore.
October 24, 2010
My Jamaican Dining Extravaganza
I had a great dining experience recently and wanted to give the place a plug. I'm no critic, but I know what I like. A year ago, Jamaica native Michelle Gibson opened Touch of Jamaica Cafe in Mount Kisco, NY, in Westchester County. It is one of a number of ethnic restaurants in the area, sitting right beside an Ethiopian place and a few yards away from a Japanese restaurant.
I've had Jamaican food before so I was eager to try the new kids on the block. I'm glad I did. The place has a cozy, neighborhood feel with posters of Bob Marley all around -- the photo below shows Ms. Gibson next to one of the large pieces. I got the oxtail and liked it, along a ginger soda and finally bread pudding for dessert. The check was very reasonable and the Monty Alexander jazz CD of Marley's music set the right tone without being thumpingly intrusive.
Ms. Gibson, assisted on the night I visited by her daughter, shows a real love for the cuisine and culture of Jamaica, and provides a personal touch that puts a Taste of Jamaica high on my list of Westchester dining. Next time, I'll try the jerk chicken. Now if she could only open a branch in Westport . . .
October 05, 2010
I had made a נֶדֶר (neder, or promise) that I wouldn't watch ABC's "This Week with Christiane Amanpour." Not only did I like her predecessor George Stephanopolus, but I really dislike Amanpour. Her CNN series, "God's Warriors," argued, rather tritely, that every religion - Jewish, Muslim, and Christian - has its extremists. This is the message of someone who isn't interested in facing up to the real challenges the Muslim community faces with respect to radical Islam and terrorism.
I saw an advertisement, however, on TV Saturday night, October 2 for a feature titled, "Holy War: Should Americans Fear Islam?," which would appear on "This Week." When I turned it on Sunday morning, I saw a number of participants and audience members whom I never expected to see, such as Robert Spencer, creator of Jihad Watch, and Gary Bauer, a leading Evangelical who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. These are hard personalities to relate to, though Bauer proved to be rather articulate. I wasn't sure whether they had been invited to create balance or to give the impression that only marginal, loud-mouthed individuals are concerned with radical Islam in America.
In addition, my heroine, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, appeared by satellite. Her presence was the highlight of the hour-long show and earned Amanpour and her producers credibility since I believe her to be the most important voice out there on Islamism and its relationship to Islam.
Among those who were there to cast anyone who considers Islamism a danger in America as an Islamaphobe were Reza Aslan, by satellite, and Daisy Kahn, the co-founder of Park51.
Despite its cerebral content, "Holy War" quickly took on a Jerry Springer-like quality. The large number of participants and the many degrees of separation between their various perspectives made a sensible conversation rather impossible. In a certain respect, I was glad to see "This Week's" producers produce a show on such a sensitive topic that was so ridiculously free-wheeling and borderline out-of-control. One would think that with such a title, producers would be inclined to tread trepidatiously, but they let the participants go to town.
A most disturbing exchange took place between Daisy Khan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which concretized my image of Daisy as an intellectually bereft, insensitive, and power-hungry figure.
Daisy: First of all, I think that if we have to create a counter against extremism, it's Muslims who have to lead that...This is what we Muslims want to do, but you have tied our hands. You don't allow us to do this because you brand somebody like me as an extremist, and throw me into the arms of al-Qaeda.
HIRSI: You have freedom to move anywhere, no one is throwing you anywhere. Your rights are protected. I think that it's your perception of being a victim, and I think that's --
DAISY: I am not a victim, Ayaan. Stop calling me that. You're the one running with all the bodyguards.
The sheer rudeness of this remark astounded me. It took what is a real concern - Ali's safety - and unabashedly diminished it. Ali was aiming for a good point - she basically made it but needed a drop more time for elaboration; however, Daisy's interjection derailed it. Her comment was saturated with immaturity and reminded me of the kind of quick jab - devoid of substance but full of mockery - high school students regularly deliver upon one another.
September 15, 2010
"Live From New York, It's Fidel Castro!"
The news that Cuba will lay off 500,000 state workers and enable more private-market opportunities shows that the revolutionary fervor, even when cheered on by American elites, cannot forever withstand economic reality. The Catholic Church had said in a report quoted in the Wall Street Journal that Cuba faced social and economic disaster – although that disaster happened decades ago and is now just a matter of degrees.
Fidel Castro should move quickly and capitalize (to turn a phrase) on the moves and show Cubans how a good capitalist acts. The now-retired Castro could make a great living by writing a book, hitting the talk-show circuit and cashing in on his bloody, revolutionary fame. The slavish attention paid to his every move by the mainstream media shows he should cash in now on his image and phrase-making to supplement his no-doubt modest state pension in Cuba.
September 06, 2010
From the 1979 Archive: Fear and Loathing on the Long Island Singles Scene
[In the summer of 1979, between my junior and senior years at Princeton University, I had a plum job as an intern feature writer for Newsday, a major daily based in Garden City, New York. After the summer I wrote this piece for the September 12, 1979 issue of the Princetonian, for incoming freshmen. The anxiety in the piece about driving and gasoline reflected the gas crisis of that summer, which led to long lines at gas stations. My harebrained efforts to conserve gas and limit driving in my 1971 AMC Hornet got me into ridiculous situations. I’ve added bracketed explanatory notes to flesh out the last 31 years of life experience.]
Once school had ended last spring, but before my summer as a reporter on Long Island began, I immediately immersed myself in the cathode hot tub of American culture. On any evening in early June I hunkered down in front of Colonial Club’s TV, deliciously slack-jawed while advertisements played the summer hard sell, showering this winter shut-in with scenes of beach frolic, the open road and heavy, heavy socializing. [Colonial Club was the eating club to which I belonged at Princeton.]
The message fit nicely with the brochures sent to the Newsday interns. TV said WHAT to do, while the booklets and maps told me WHERE to do it. (With WHOM was the problem.) Equipped with my first car, the Newsday social calendar and, of course, lots of gasoline, I was bound and determined to enjoy myself, even if I nearly killed myself in the process.
August 17, 2010
The Right Kind of People, NJ Style
The Sunday, August 15 Real Estate section of the New York Times contained a story about the joys of living in Fair Haven, NJ, under the headline "Small-Town Feel in a Big-Spender Area." What caught my attention was this quote, which bears deep parsing:
Cynthia and Philip Auerbach have lived in Fair Haven for 44 years, rearing a family of three and now regularly hosting nine grandchildren at their 3,400-square-foot home, which they recently put on the market in an effort to downsize. When they first moved here, Ms. Auerbach said, they were looking for a community that "offered some diversity."
"It was important to my husband and me that we not be in an all-white, all-upper-class atmosphere," said Mrs. Auerbach, noting that although they are Jewish, they had also been uninterested in living in "a Jewish enclave."
Think about it: do members of any other ethnic or religious group take such pains to make sure a listener wouldn't think they wanted to be around too many of their co-religionists? How did Jewishness become part of the mix of factors of concern, Jewishness as the zingy horseradish on top of the gefulte fish of whiteness and high income? The liberal and Jewish guilt practically glows like radioactive plutonium on the page.
I'm glad Fair Haven provides the environment the couple likes for themselves and their family; somehow I doubt their definition of diversity embraces the Tea Party and Orthodox families pushing baby carriages and hanging an eruv.
August 12, 2010
A Communist For Kerry Burrows Into the System From Within
I was delighted to read this story that an alum of the 2004 group "Communists For Kerry" is now cunningly running for Congress in Florida. If elected, "Comrade Che," a/k/a Jason Sager, can burrow into the rotting political system from within.
CFK caught my attention in that tumultuous political year, and I checked out one of their street-theater events at New York's Union Square in October (a fitting month) and, of course, took pictures. The whole troupe brilliantly befuddled observers who couldn't tell how serious they were -- spoofers or real revolutionaries? The photos and captions on the CFK site tell the story. I never fail to laugh at the antics. We need more of their ilk starting right now.
Below, that's Comrade Che to the left.
August 10, 2010
Everything You Need to Know About JDate in 10 Quotes
Years ago I met a woman on Jdate and something about our communications had an archetypal sound, almost like a cosmic conversation. If aliens came to earth, they could learn so much from reading our back and forth about the mating styles of the digital era. Since aliens will have lots to explore when they land here, I've done them a favor and extracted the top 10 quotes from emails I had from this woman, whom I'll call YettaFromYonkers. This happened so long ago that I barely remember her name.
Go ahead -- feel the love.
August 09, 2010
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Reads the Magazines
The Audit Bureau of Circulations has released newsstand and retail single-copy sales results for U.S. consumer magazines for the first half of the year. Here are the top magazines reporting figures to ABC, along with sales and percentage change. My informed analysis of what it all means follows the listing.
August 08, 2010
"The Kid Who Batted 1.000" Comes to Life
Growing up, I was one of those kids who ordered Scholastic paperbacks by the cartonful. One I remember is The Kid Who Batted 1.000, by Bob Allison. As a frustrated, near-sighted player in Farm and Bronco Leagues, I thrilled to the story of a player who never made an out.
I thought about the book this morning at the New York Sports Club, where I worked out and watched ESPN's SportsCenter report. I watched the amazing feat yesterday of the Toronto Blue Jays' J.P. Arencibia. In his first major league game, he hit the first pitch for a home run. In his first four at-bats, he collected two HRs, a single and a double. If I read the monitor right, he did all that on four pitches. He made an out on his fifth at-bat, but, still, that's starting your career in with a bang. The story on the Blue Jays website recaps:
Arencibia became the first player since 1900 to have a pair of home runs and a quartet of hits in his big league debut. He is only the fifth player in baseball history to launch two home runs in his first Major League game and the 107th player to homer in his first career at-bat in the bigs.
"J.P. had a heck of a day today," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "One that he can go back and tell his grandkids about. I don't know if anyone would believe it, though, unless they really saw it."
I love that quote from Cito Gaston -- "J.P. had a heck of a day today." That's what managers say. That could be the basis of a revised version of "Damn Yankees," maybe called "Darned Blue Jays."
Based on Arencibia's statistics so far in his big-league career, the Blue Jays fan site SBnation.com is already saying "we can at least state with confidence that J.P. Arencibia is the best hitter of the last fifty years."
The performance no doubt has baseball statisticians, Baseball Guru and the slide-rule set at the Society for American Baseball Research pulling out their books to put the one-day rampage in perspective. I always get a kick out of baseball records and statistics discussions, which reach degrees of mathematical sophistication far beyond my ability to comprehend, as this book and website show. And this book, Teaching Statistics Using Baseball, would have helped me a lot more in college than the class I took in econometrics.
For the record, the kind of baseball stats I find the most interesting are the historical ones. This essay rounds up 10. I'll add two season performances that I'm confident will never be repeated on MLB: a pitcher winning 30 games in a seasons, last done by Denny McLain in 1968, and a hitter having a .400 batting average, last done by Ted Williams in 1941.
Let's see what the record books will say about J.P. Arencibia, the real-like kid who almost batted 1.000 in his first game.
August 07, 2010
The Bomb and the Parents, 65 Years Later
Yesterday marked 65 years since the U.S. bombed Hiroshima. Ann Althouse's blog has a spirited discussion of the event and what would have happened had the bombs not been dropped.
My own personal connection to the event is intense. My father was in the Navy, a SeaBee on Okinawa, and my mother was a Navy cryptographer in Washington working down the hall from Admiral Halsey. Had the bombs not fallen and the war not ended, my father no doubt would have been in the force invading Japan; my mother might have remained in the Navy sending out secret messages -- at times she said she should have just stayed in the Navy as a career. My existence, like many others, would have been radically different.
And like others, I'm only sorry the bomb did not exist a year earlier for use against the richly deserving Germans.
August 06, 2010
What One Descendent of Slaves Thinks about the Civil War
I started to write today about Belmonte, the hidden Jewish community that has survived for 500 years in Portugal. J.J. Goldberg, senior columnist for The Forward newspaper had a column in its August 6 issue about this amazing place. Looking for the column on the Forward's website, I stumbled upon a relevant column by Goldberg on a topic hot off the Kesher Talk press: The Civil War, the conflict that just goes on and on.
Taking aim at the content of the Brooklyn-based Goliath of Jewish newspapers, The Jewish Press, Goldberg writes:
Inquiring readers have a treat waiting for them in the current issue of The Jewish Press, the Brooklyn-based weekly that’s hands-down the most widely read Jewish periodical in the Orthodox community. I’m speaking of a front-page article defending the cause of the Confederacy and attacking Abraham Lincoln as a bigot. No, I’m not kidding.
I'll leave it to readers to explore Goldberg's skewering of the peculiar writings in the Jewish Press on the peculiar institution of slavery. Suffice it to say that celebrations of the Jewish role, such as it was, in the Confederacy are not a point of honor, given that Jews are themselves descendants of slaves who celebrate liberation each spring.
Whatever the arguments of the Press' contributor, those articles and Goldberg's comments show that the Civil War, and especially the Confederate side of the conflict, still courses like lava through American discussions, from Austin to Flatbush and all points in between.
When does the Grand Army of the Republic get some positive ink? Will Union symbols ever be considered a sign of rebellion or by definition do they represent the establishment? Has a college frat house ever got in trouble for sponsoring a "Union Pride Party"? I doubt it.
August 05, 2010
Murder City, Murder World
I finished reading Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields by Charles Bowden. As an intense follower of the tragic violence in Mexico, I was curious about the book and what I could learn from it.
In a word: Not much.
I found myself finally skimming the book, as the same messages about Juarez and killings kept coming around. While Bowden is a tenacious and brave reporter and does excellent press interviews, the book is too long on stream of consciousness writing and low on analysis.It does provide a snapshot of the wave of violence that hit and continues to overwhelm Juarez as it was beginning.
While the book is called Murder City, I kept thinking that the term applies to most of Mexico now. And my mind kept going back to another place marked by total corruption of public agencies, where those in authority were the very forces to dread: The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, especially the Purge years of 1936-1938. I've read a lot about that era, and Mexico parallels the sense of random death, the lack of protection. The only difference is that the threat in the USSR clearly came from the state security organs (NKVD) while in Mexico the threat comes from the Army, the police, the drug cartels and . . . who else? As the place descends into total social chaos, the threats mestasticize and safety exists nowhere. A great place to get a shuddering feel for the insane era is The Great Terror by Robert Conquest.
August 04, 2010
Whistling Dixie at the Texas State Capitol
A walk around the grounds of the Texas State Capitol in Austin last week hurled me back in history. Memorials to the Alamo, firefighters, schoolchildren and other worthy groups dot the grounds, but the defining historical thread shadowing the grounds is the Civil War. The monuments personally interest me as an American, and as the great-great-grandson of a Civil War veteran. That was Adolph Lissner, a German immigrant who served in Troop E, Third Regiment, New York Cavalry, according to a death notice in the New York Times of January 21, 1914. My political and family sympathies lie far away from the Austin Confederate memorials, but I want to get a feel for what they mean.
The first stop on a self-guided tour of the Capitol grounds is the Hood’s Brigade Monument. Dedicated 100 years ago, it honors a brigade that fought in the Army of Northern Virginia. Elsewhere is the Confederate Soldiers Monument, showing the 13 states that composed the Confederacy, arrayed around statues of soldiers and President Jefferson Davis. Yet another recalls Benjamin Terry’s Texas Rangers, who became the Confederacy’s Eighth Texas Cavalry. Inside the Senate chamber I found a portrait of Albert Sidney Johnston, Texas Army and Confederate general killed at the Battle of Shilo in 1862.
That’s the past. These memorials arose generations ago, built by the men who fought with these groups in a political climate that accepted their political views. Ideas evolve, new generations look at a post-Confederate world.
August 03, 2010
Music Prowler Stalks the Streets of Austin
Austin, Texas styles itself as "the Live Music Capital of the World." That may be so, and it also boasts some excellent record stores (yes, I still call them that). My recent trip to my home state gave me ample time to root around in them for music impossible to find in New York City. There, the serial deaths of Tower, HMV and Virgin left me bereft of well-stocked music retailers. Astounding as it sounds, I have to leave Gotham City to get my CD groove on. I've stocked up on CDs in some of the great music cities of the world: São Paulo in 2004, Havana in 2008 and Austin in 2010.
I went to Austin with a definite genre in mind: the music I so enjoy on Radio Free Texas, the home of “red dirt” music. The genre comes with an easily identified twang and topics that center on pinin’ for that pretty little gal in the tight jeans who got tired of her guy’s ramblin’ ways, and also barking to outsiders, “Screw You, We're From Texas,” an anthem by Ray Wylie Hubbard.
August 02, 2010
Big Brother in Reverse: Technology's Revenge
Apple Computer's ad in the 1984 Super Bowl to introduce the Mac had the unforgettable ending line, "And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'"
The concept of an individual's ability to use technology to break free of regimentation continues to have tremendous, even accelerating, meaning. Taking Apple's 1984 reference and ad a step further, the phrase "Big Brother in reverse" now gets used to describe how individuals use technology to observe and track malfeasance by any oppressive powers. That could be business and government, but it can also definitely be thuggish labor union goons and religious institutions and even, in the case of citizen observers recording shoot-outs in Mexico, drug cartels. As the Holocaust and Stalinist repressions of the 1930s show, the ability to dam the flow of information and keep people ignorant of crimes around them is a necessary support of those crimes.
Are repressive groups scared? You betcha. The Iranian government grappled with bloggers who covered the student uprising there a year ago. While that revolution failed for the time being, it showed the ability of technology to Unions don't like citizens with webcams recording their demonstrations. A "media guy" with a camera at a Philadelphia voting station recorded New Black Panthers and the Department of Justice is chasing its tail around trying to get free of the evidence of possible voter intimidation.
The latest example of a government running scared comes from the United Arab Emirates, which is planning to shut down access to BlackBerry devices. An Associated Press story outlined the issues in play, both stated and in play:
The government cited a potential security threat because encrypted data sent on the devices is moved abroad, where it cannot be monitored for illegal activity. But the decision — followed by a similar move in Saudi Arabia — raises questions about whether the conservative Gulf nations are trying to further control content they deem politically or morally objectionable.
BlackBerry phones have a strong following in the region, not only among foreign professionals in commercial centers such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but also among youth who see the relatively secure communication channels as a way to avoid unwanted government attention.
"The authorities have used a variety of arguments, like it can be used by terrorists" to justify the crackdown, said Christopher Davidson, a professor at the University of Durham in Britain, who has written about the region. "Yes that's true, but it can also be used by civil society campaigners and activists."
I'd be remiss to not mention the Wikileaks case involving US government materials about Afghanistan. Be it for good or ill, this is another example of how technology can illuminate actions, views or policies that those in power prefer to keep hidden. The "surveillance society" cuts in both directions.
August 01, 2010
First Daughters and Jewish Husbands: Was, Is, and To Be?
When Chelsea Clinton got married to hedge fund executive Marc Mezvinsky yesterday, they had a rabbi and a Methodist minister. The groom wore a kippah and a tallit, or prayer shawl. I'm glad they brought both faiths to the mixed marriage.
She's not the first First Daughter to snap up a nice Jewish boy for a husband. In 1986, Caroline Kennedy married designer Edwin Schlossberg, all four of whose grandparents were Ukrainian Jews, per Wikipedia.
Once is a curiosity, twice is a trend in the journalism world, so I'm casting my mind decades into the future and wondering whether Malia and Natasha Obama will follow in the footsteps of Kennedy and Clinton. They've already got the right names to fit well with Jewish husbands -- Malia is close to Malya and Natasha is, well, Natasha. And if Sara Palin goes to the White House -- it sounds like America's Teen Mom Sweetheart, Bristol, is going to be back on the market soon if fiance Levi Johnston impregnated another woman. With somebody named Levi the father of her child, Bristol definitely has an affinity for guys with heavy-duty Hebraic names.
Chuppahs in the White House, anybody?
July 27, 2010
My Emerging Life as a Skinny Bitch
I recently skimmed the book "Skinny Bitch" by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin. While I'm not quite the authors' demographic, I found the book worth a half-hour of flipping. The tone turned me off with all the profanities -- the authors came across as skinny, vulgar, vocabulary-impaired bitches, but that's just my personal preference. I can separate the message from the messengers.
While I'm not going to stop my carnivorous habits, I did decide to start my new life as a skinny bitch by cutting way back on artificial sweeteners. I always use them rather than sugar, but the authors made a good case for trying substitutes. As a result, I picked up some Agave natural liquid sweetener at Costco.
And you know what? I must have been on to something. Twice at the store, people stopped to talk to me about the sweetener in my cart. One man saw me while I was considering whether to buy and thought it was a good idea. Minutes later, a woman asked where I got it in the store because she wanted some. I pointed in the general direction.
Now Costco is a fun place for cart-snooping, to see what people need in vast quantities and then speculate on their lifestyles or interests. I can see that people were checking out my cart, also. Nobody ever stops to talk to me at Costco, so something about my new skinny bitch (skinny bastard?) lifestyle must send out powerful conversational signals.
I have not had a pack of artificial sweeteners in the weeks since I got the Agave.