Monday, July 21, 2008

Topical and timely tome

I've got alliteration on the brain this morning...if you want a good summer read that is equal parts sports, history, politics and melodrama--that is, 3-decades-old sports, history, politics and melodrama, a break from the presidential campaign--then David Maraniss's Rome l960 is the book for you. Maraniss is famous for his histories in microcosm, that is taking one event and making clear its meaning over time. It turns out Rome's Olympic games saw a number of significant firsts: East and West Germany competing as one Olympic team, just months before the Wall went up, Cassius Clay becoming the first worldwide celebrity athlete, the debut of steroids as a game-changing substance, the struggle of the United States authorities to answer East bloc charges of racism and hypocrisy by showcasing such luminous talents as Wilma Rudolph while allowing southern state authorities to do everything possible to thwart civil rights demonstrators at home. This work is especially relevant as we approach what is certain to be another epochal games in Beijing. You can read some Amazon reviews here.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Reporting back in...

What Popessa said! I am still here, I think…I have just been on the road, on various missions, like grading AP European history tests, touring more of the western front in France and Belgium and bringing a new dog into the family. I am not sure what the net effect of all these sundry assignments is: generally unleashing the dogs of war, unleashing a war of dogs, maybe calling on the old standby, the famous running dogs of imperialism that in turn unleashed the dogs of war in l9l4? I haven’t quite decided, but the conclusion to be drawn from the last part of this long, strange trip is the same as always: you NEVER, EVER choose war.
My battlefield tourist comrade and I began as always in Ypres, or “Wipers” as the British called it, where there was fierce fighting every year in the war, beginning in late fall l9l4, when the Germans were stopped on the river Marne on the way to Paris and began racing for the coast to try to outflank British forces and seal off the channel ports of Calais, Dunkirk and Zeebrugge. If they accomplished that, it would be impossible to supply the British Expeditionary Force, thereby making the march on Paris much easier. The Germans didn’t manage to get there quickly enough, and the British dug in, guaranteeing an indefinite siege of bloody trench warfare. Without reciting the entire history of the Ypres salient, I can tell you that there are l40+ British, 3 German, and several French and Belgian cemeteries in about a 30 square mile area. These represent only those soldiers whose bodies were found and identified. On a series of elaborate monuments to the missing, you can read the names of the thousands with no known graves—over 2/3 of the dead in this war fall into this category. At the Menin Gate, which straddles the road which every British soldier traveled to the front, the Belgians stage a solemn ceremony each evening in mourning and thanksgiving for those who died defending Belgium in the war. A buglers’ brigade plays the British equivalent of “Taps,” and a visitor recites the last four lines of a Lawrence Binyon poem called “For the Fallen.”

They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old
Age shall not worry them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Then it was on to northern France, in the Picardy region, where the battles of the Somme took place in l9l6 and l9l8. The big story there was July 1, l9l6, when the British army sustained some 58,000 casualties—the German casualty figures were catastrophic, too—in one day, the worst in British military history. There every corner of the planet, every vestige of the British empire is represented in commemoration—Newfoundlanders, Canadians, Aussies, South Africans, New Zealanders, Irish, Indians, Chinese trench diggers. As in Ypres, so many of them have no known graves, a fact driven home by the Lutyens memorial to the missing at Thiepval, which you see within this post. Although many of them were fighting for their lives to the southeast, at Verdun, there are numerous Frenchmen buried on the Somme as well. There is no finer tribute to the futility of that entire enterprise than the innumerable cemeteries and memorials amidst the fields and valleys of the Somme.
We ended our pilgrimage back in Belgium, “poor little Belgium,” where the Great War began the afternoon of August 21, l914, and ended with the Armistice at ll a.m. on 11/11/18. The first and last men to die on the British side are buried in St. Symphorien cemetery, alongside numerous Germans who died with them. No one could know that these men would bookend 9,000,000 other deaths in that conflict.
There is no end to sobering lessons on offer in the mass graveyard of the western front, but clearly the most important is that you CANNOT CHOOSE WAR, because the only thing you control in a war is the first shot. The current occupant of the White House chose war, with disastrous consequences for the world. We cannot afford a President McCain, who believes a)we could’ve “won” the Vietnam war, b)discretionary war in Iraq is a swell project and c)he should be elected President because he can “win wars.” The memory of the beginning and course of the Great War compels us to choose our leader in 2008 with a lot more care than in 2004.

That New Yorker Cover

When does satire no longer work? That's the question we've been asking ourselves since the New Yorker's Obama as Muslim terrorist cover hit the stands. Is it Swiftian-level satire or a swing and a miss that perpetuates misconceptions? Is it a New York intellectual sensibility that is out of touch with the rest of America or have we become a people who are on the edge, constantly looking for something that offends our tender sensibilities?

As much as it pains me to say this, I think we are living in times, or in a society where a solid minority (please let it still at least be a minority) of people prefer seeking anything they can find to reinforce a belief rather than question a misconception. A society where debate has been replaced by mocking, shouted accusations and innuendo. Where nuance is unknown or recognized.

By these standards, I believe the cover was a massive mis-fire. I wish it wasn't. I would love to think we're a society where everyone would see this as it was intended, over-the-top humorous references to ridiculous slurs and rumors. But if one truly believes those slurs and rumors are reality, is the image a cartoon, or a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Admit It - You're Going to Miss Cheney

So neither soon-to-be nominees have picked running mates yet, so we don't know who the new Veep might be. But we do know we'll be saying goodbye to Cheney in January. Of course, it's not soon enough, I was more than willing to say goodbye to this fool 10 seconds after he took office.

But I also have to admit that I'm going to miss the guy. I mean, after all, how often do we get to have a truly, remorseless and evil being in that office. I dare say, looking over Veeps of the past, we have had weak, power-hungry, and borderline morons (ah, yes, we also have a part of us that misses Dan "potatos" Quayle). But until Darth Cheney took office, we haven't had a relentlessly vicious, self-centered and evil being in that office.

Would the next Veep shoot a man in the face, dismiss concerns of the American public with a one-word ("so?") response? Help push the nation into a war that benefits his friends and donation-friendly corporations while shrugging his shoulders at the human cost of the conflict?

I was thinking of this today as I was looking at a newly released report by the Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming that is subtitled "How Big Oil Persuaded the Bush Administration to Abandon Proposed Regulations for Global Warming Pollution." The report looks into the pressure Cheney and his friends in the oil industry put on senior administration officials who were leaning to favoring using the Clean Air Act to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Thanks to the work of Cheney & buddies, those mis-guided Bush administration officials abandoned that silly notion.

Dick Cheney. Is there anything he won't do for big oil?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A Couple of Bad Seeds?

There are those people who are gracious when the battle is over, who are kind and forgiving of past problems. I'd like to be one of those people. But there are times like yesterday when it's just not happening. Which is to say my reaction to Jesse Helms' death wasn't "that's sad," but "it's about time." Ok, the guy is dead. Time to think up something nice to say about him. After all, if you can't say something nice about a guy when he dies, what does that say about him. What does it say about you?

So maybe I'm not a whole lot better than Jesse. But the man was as horrible as they come. I have read through two obituaries, trying to find something that could trigger a good word. Then I read a line like this from the WaPo --"Sometimes called the patron saint of the new right, he developed a national following and helped set the nation's conservative social agenda. He was a superb political organizer and fundraiser whose early support for Ronald Reagan helped secure a Republican ascendancy that has lasted more than 25 years" and figure I'm going to have to dig a whole lot deeper. I mean if this is the best that can be said for the man - that he helped set up the country for the selfishness and wretchedness that followed that Republican ascendancy - it's not a good start.

So maybe we thank him for his pioneering work in the field of negative TV attack ads?
Or going beyond advertisements in his 1996 campaign that sent 125,000 fliers to heavily African American precincts warning that voters risked imprisonment if they cast ballots.
Or his efforts and threats to cancel federal support for arts groups?
Or his refusal to attend Nelson Mandela's speech to a joint session of congress?
Or his fights against AIDS research, terming it a "homosexual disease" apparently unworthy of research funding.
Or his work as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to oppose the international criminal court, the international land mine treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as well as Kyoto.
Or using his Senate influence and power to block the nomination of Black Americans to the courts and to ambassadorial positions.
Or . . . the list is long and sad. So I'm going to stop here.

According to those who knew him, Helms was unrepentant for his life to the very end (apart from finally easing up on AIDS funding in Africa and a photo op with Bono). So I'm going to take the opportunity to be as bad a seed as Helms. I'll say the world is better off with the man dead, and am sorry only that it didn't happen many many years ago.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Still Here, I Think

Apologies for such few posts in past few weeks. Work is just demanding a bit more of my life than usual, as it is for Bucky these days as well.

Which is not to say there aren't more than just a handful of issues that make me want to scream, "Make it Stop! Make it Stop," from A pro-gun/anti-my basic safety ruling from the Supreme Court to Zimbabwe. I will be blogging more regularly soon. In the meantime, do as I do - hold your nose and try and find something good to focus on in the world and your lives :).

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