Archive for December, 2007

This is the time of year when retrospectives abound. I spent the weekend perusing the Internet, watching a little TV and reading this and that magazine. You pretty much know what everyone was focusing on, which is to say everything from the Presidential race and the deaths of various political and cultural icons over the past year to the overexposed shenanigans of our rehab/jailhouse-bound celebrities young and not so young. Being fond of taking the unique view, I’ve chosen to highlight those activities and events that seem to have largely slipped past the media searchlights to offer my own perspective on the year just about to expire. Herewith, my list:

Most Overlooked Event of 2007: The Virginia Tech Massacre has scarcely merited a mention, perhaps because of the dangerously intrusive way in which it was handled by the media.

Irony Award: The discovery that skin cells might be able to mimic and eliminate the need for embryonic stem cells, thus deflating what was a truly hot-button issue at the beginning of the year

Sports Upset: Not A-Rod or Torre or the Sox or the doping report but the Philadelphia Phillies, who after amassing the most losing record of any major sports franchise in history (10,000 losses) in July, went on in September to win the National League East Division

Where Was That Uprising: Burma, AKA Myanmar, only one of several hot spots this year experiencing uprisings but hard to track because of we didn’t know which name the media was using on any given day.

Reason for Despair Division: Crime rates in cities like Newark, Camden and Philadelphia; the upswing in diabetes and obesity; the failure of the U.S. policy of “democracy promotion” and the lack of a credible alternative plan (actually, that’s been in the news quite a bit but it bears repeating); the television writers’ strike; 2008 is an election year.

Reason for Hope Division: Skin cells and stem cells (see above); anything Mike Bloomberg does in New York; more celebrities coughing up more money than ever before (I don’t care why they’re doing it; they’re committing real time and real money and bringing real attention to real problems); 2008 is an election year.

Well, the calendar will change whether we want it to or not, so bring it on. At least we’ll get an extra day in 2008 to sort it all out.

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Benazir Bhutto‘s assassination is, as everyone has figured out, bad news. Bad for Pakistan. Bad for its enormously unpopular leader Pervez Musharaff. Bad for the population, which, having experienced everything from a devastating earthquake to a recent outbreak of bird flu, finds itself once again hopelessly trapped between a weakened dictator and the press of Al Qaeda extremists without a moderate in sight. Bad for the United States, which continues to funnel money to a shaky regime with nuclear capabilities as part of its “war on terror” strategy.

I’m watching CNN and the analysts are suggesting foreign policy will once again assert itself as a major issue in our Presidential race. Well and good. Unfortunately, this incident gives candidates an opportunity to bring up the war on terror in a way neither helpful nor substantive, only inflammatory. See Rudolph Giuliani’s statement on the Bhutto assassination, particularly his reference to the “terrorists’ war on us.” I suppose by “us” he means “democracy supporters everywhere” but I’m not sure I want to put Pakistan’s current President in that category.

Frankly, I’m sick of the concept of a “war on terror.” It’s become an easy slogan. It’s vague and meaningless. It reduces everything to “us” versus “them.” It precludes any nuanced discussion of cultural, political, economic realities. It shoves potential friends to the margins and into a vaguely defined “them” category and puts us in bed with military dictators and unpopular leaders. It conflates facts and ignores details. It’s a dangerously simplistic way of looking at the world. It can also be fatal.

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Come ye now and let us dwell not upon angry disagreements about the meaning of Christmas; nor spend undue amounts of time thinking of the pain of traveling cross-country to see family we scarcely know (though we may spend undue amounts of time in the airports or on the roads). Let us turn our minds and hearts away from the desperate lengths to which we will go to find a perfect gift for a loved one nor the many for whom we forgot to shop and break free of the endless cycle of Christmas specials that clutter our televisions. Instead, let us acknowledge the spirit of kindness, charity and general benevolence as exemplified by a few lovely stories I happened to spot.

  • A rumpled Chistopher Lloyd-type professor has captured the attention of Internet denizens with his endearing and zany lectures on physics.
  • In drought-stricken Africa, a creative entrepreneur has introduced a merry-go-round attached to a water pump, storage unit and tap; when the kids jump on and spin, the water flows.
  • An American soldier deployed to Iraq adopted a young boy with cerebral palsy and, against all odds, brought him to the United States to live.
  • HRM, the Queen is on YouTube!

Best of all, we have a few days (probably only two, although one can always hope) in which we won’t hear from or see the candidates tramping through the ice or snow in Iowa and New Hampshire, trailed by hordes of pollsters, pundits and whatnot.  January promises to be all-primary all the time but for now we can be grateful for the respite. Pace.

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The primaries are upon us (on top of us really) and the pundits are getting whiplash trying to follow the bouncing polls. Maybe they deserve twenty lashes for bouncing the pols from frontrunner to has-been and back again. Somehow these early primaries and the hooplah that surrounds them seem as divorced from reality as possible. We have commentators asking candidates to raise their hands if they believe in evolution or agree that global warming is a threat. I mean, come on, is this a kindergarten class or a debate? The Democrats’ race is tight and bringing out the trump card gets more challenging. I figured being married to a former President beat all but now comes the power of O, which could really change the landscape. Who would have predicted Mike Huckabee as the front runner, that the sly, maybe-not-so-nice Southern preacher with the simple (some might say simplistic) world view. Actually, we don’t know much about his view of the world except that evolution has nothing to do with it. For simple visions, there’s Obama’s expectation that he can bring even greedy pharmaceutical executives and self-destructive dictators to the table and Rudy’s conviction that the world is divided into them and us and “them” probably deserves to be bombed into oblivion.

One event that struck me as strange and prompted this post was the endorsement of Republican John McCain by former Democrat and now Independent Joe Lieberman. Then again, maybe it’s not so strange. Ignoring a history of differences over a range of issues, they’ve bonded over their shared belief that we can and must stay the course in Iraq. Their conviction that the present policies work may well place them uniquely within their own alternate reality.  Still, I couldn’t help but shake my head in amazement. Lieberman Endorses McCain. Wow, you can’t make this stuff up.

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If you’re a fan of baseball, which I am, the recent report from George Mitchell about steroid use is disappointing. It’s also unsurprising.  Maybe that’s because the other sport I loosely follow, professional cycling, has also been severely injured by recent drug use revelations. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig made clear in a statement that although specific ballplayers whave been singled out in the report, there’s plenty of blame to go around – owners, managers, coaches and trainers. He didn’t mention fans, of course, and most of them professed shock that their heroes had allowed themselves to be seduced by the promise of performance-enhancing drugs. They worried about the accuracy of new records, the fairness of nominations to the Baseball Hall of Fame (Roger Clemens is up for a slot) and, oh yes, the kind of example it sets for their kids. Given the problems of steroid use among young high schoole athletes, I shouldn’t wonder they’d worry. Then again, given the recent spate of stories about overly-amped up parents with an eye on athletic scholarships pushing their children to succeed at all costs, maybe it’s the kids who should worry.

Frankly, the fans need to take some responsibility here. They’re the ones forking over the dough to see professional sports. Given the cost, they want more, which is understandable: harder faster, more speed on the ball, more balls out of the park. But come on. How do they think these high-priced guys pushing  past thirty-fives deliver the goods? What do they imagine sports franchises overlook in pursuit of the electric excitement they think their ticket-holders crave?

So what’s it gonna be, fans? More of the juiced up performances we’ve come to know or perhaps something a little less frenetic? There are plenty of talented players who don’t use drugs – or at least I will continue to hope so. Let’s send a message to the owners, managers, coaches, trainers and players that we, as consumers, are unwilling to accept a tainted product.

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Last evening I went to a taping of a panel discussion at Princeton University on the separation of church and state. The show was  Dan Rather’s online program on HDNet.  I wanted to see Dan, of course; I’ve been worried about him since the CBS contretemps but can report that he looked hale and hearty. I was also curious to hear what the panelists, experts in religion and the Constitution, had to say about the current tug-of-war over the place of religion in society.  Honestly, they didn’t have much to say, touching only lightly on matters like court rulings on intelligent design or federal funding of faith-based initiatives. Of course, it’s Princeton and they are legal academics, so it seemed unlikely they would do more than tiptoe carefully around the cultural issues concerning religion and society that are producing such a high level of anxiety nowadays over what is too much or too little. Is it fair to ask students to bow their heads in prayer? Is it really offensive to sing Christmas carols in school? Are Santa Claus displays as problematic as nativity displays in front of the town hall? If 85% of the U.S. residents say they are Christian, is this a Christian nation? And what does that mean, other than the fact that we now have candidates rushing to out-do each other to prove how very Christian they are, as if their faith in their (Christian) God proves their ability to lead or even demonstrates superior moral fiber.

I am comforted by the fact that regardless of what the various scholars believe about the intent of the founding fathers when it came to religion, they all believe those men intended for the government to allow people to practice their religion freely. Further, it seems accepted that the government will actually protect people from persecution and step in when necessary, which is also good to know. As to how to bridge this discomforting divide between those who feel faith is a private matter and those who fear it isn’t nearly public enough, the scholars seemed to believe that was probably outside the purview of the legal system –  thank god.

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A friend of mine was reviewing his work week, which he felt had gone very well. A high school history teacher and varsity coach, he was pleased because his cross country team had swept its division and his Comparative Government students, involved in a model UN exercise, had been named best large delegation. “And to top it all off,” he announced, “it looks as if we won’t be dealing with World War III.”

Ah yes, WWIII. That was what we were promised last fall as a consequence of Iran’s push to develop nuclear weapons, a push that is apparently not taking place, according the latest National Intelligence Estimate. The report indicates that Iran had actually halted a covert nuclear weapons program back in 2002, contradicting a 2005 intel report that Iran was developing said weapons. Got that, or do you need a scorecard?

The problem, as I see it, is not whether Iran would or would not like to have nuclear weapons.  It’s safe to assume they would. Anyone who aspires to be a player on the world stage wants the same “toys” the big boys (and girls) have. It’s also logical that more “mature” superpowers want to make certain less stable regimes don’t have access to items that, in the hands of a fanatic few, would reduce the globe to rubble. It’s fair to say Iran is almost as volitile and unpredictable as, say, Pakistan, a country that already has nuclear capabilities.  Oops, back to the scorecard.

The real problem, as I see it, is the stream of exaggerated, inflammatory and downright careless pronouncements that eminate from this country’s leadership. From WMDs to WWIII, such proclamations don’t inspire confidence in our ability to arrive at practical approaches or solutions to problems in the world. And if they’re designed to inspired fear, they’re less effective than they used to be.  Mostly they just make us look thuggish or foolish – not at all like a mature superpower.

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It’s interesting to watch democracy in action in other countries.  In Russia, the elections seemed almost as controlled as in Communist days, consolidating more power for a man nearing the end of his constitutionally mandated limit but showing no signs of departing.  The charasmatic and infuriating leader of Venezuela tried a power grab and his referendum appears to have been defeated. Last year, Hamas swept to power among Palestinians, the year before, Hezbollah won a decisive victory.

Here in this country, we have hanging chads and faulty voting machines but in general democracy works well.  Free elections are accompanied by freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and the freedom to nominate the same kinds of candidates year after year. Democracy works differently in other places, subject to culture, history, religion and the strength or influence of a particular leader or group. It’s tempting to interfere but often more instructive simply to watch and wait and see how it all unfolds.

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