Thursday, February 26, 2015

And speaking of good governance ...

Further to my remarks about Thomas Friedman's most recent op-ed, here are a few thoughts about how Friedman's observations apply not just to the Arab world, but right here at home.

Nothing feeds domestic extremism like the perceived corruption and injustice of our national government. The perception in some quarters, notably the far right (a disconcertingly large segment of the GOP these days), is incorrect: corruption and injustice aren't as bad or as widespread as neo-libertarians would have us believe. But the truth doesn't matter because it's the perception that drives people to act. The perception of corruption and injustice makes many on the far right (and some on the far left, too) ready to give up on national government altogether. Those on the far right who are still engaged in daily life (as opposed to those who have retreated to survivalist encampments) elect nihilists to represent them, hoping that if they elect enough monkey wrenches to Congress they can bring the governmental machinery to a grinding halt. They've come tantalizingly close, and they still might succeed. (The disaffected left, convinced Congress and the presidency are captives of big money, has stopped voting, leaving the electoral landscape tilted far to the right.)

As in the Arab nations convulsed by ISIS, so it is here at home that the challenge is to make people believe in government again. That will only happen, though, if government is genuinely responsive to the citizenry.

Tall order, I agree, and we can't even begin to bring it about until we're more united than divided.

We're too far apart on too many issues to make meaningful compromise possible. I lean progressive and am frequently exasperated by what I see as far-right mulishness, obstructionism without good reason (often in defiance of good reason, in fact). But I, and every other progressive, need to admit that we live in the same country with the people who disagree with us. If we're going to remain one nation (and to do otherwise is unthinkable — no, really, unthinkable), we have to talk to each other. We must make a genuine effort to understand each other. With understanding, we'll have a fighting chance of gaining mutual respect. Then we can get back to fixing our government.

Easy? Of course not. How long will it take? No idea. It took us decades to dig ourselves into this hole; we're not getting out of it overnight. What's the alternative, though? More of the same?

(I've said a lot of this before, by the way.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Friedman makes sense of ISIS

Thomas Friedman's 25 February 2015 opinion piece in the New York Times is brief but potently sensible. A lot of it focuses on what's wrong with the Arab nations in which ISIS and its ideological brethren have made inroads, but you can't discuss the region without mentioning the U.S. Friedman's analysis makes more sense than anybody else's I've read:
The U.S. keeps repeating the same mistake in the Middle East: overestimating the power of religious ideology and underappreciating the impact of misgovernance. Sarah Chayes, who long worked in Afghanistan and has written an important book — “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” — about how government corruption helped turn Afghans away from us and from the pro-U.S. Afghan regime, argues that “nothing feeds extremism more than the in-your-face corruption and injustice” that some of America’s closest Middle East allies administer daily to their people.
The sickness of ISIS can only be combated successfully if the nations susceptible to its primitive ideology become healthy. They need good governments, and populaces who are willing to believe in the possibility of good governance. How will that happen? I don't know. Friedman doesn't know. Maybe nobody knows. But you can't get better until you understand why you're sick. Friedman has made a spot-on diagnosis. Our policy makers in Washington, D.C. would do well to heed it before they commit this nation to any further action against ISIS.

The quoted passage from Friedman's piece is deeply relevant to the U.S. itself, too. I'll tackle that in the next entry.

One last comment: Friedman mentioned that ISIS recently threatened to "conquer Rome", and that Italians tweeted out responses under the hashtag "#We_Are_Coming_O_Rome". I had to quote my favorite: "You’re too late, Italy is already been destroyed by their governments."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Olbermann's gear shift

If you watch ESPN you probably know that Keith Olbermann was suspended for the rest of this week for tweets regarding Penn State University students.

The details don't interest me. What does interest me is why Olbermann keeps getting himself into this kind of hot water.

When most of us get mad enough to lash out indiscriminately, we literally can't think straight. If we can think straight enough to put together a cogent argument about why we're mad, we're not mad enough to lash out indiscriminately. Olbermann isn't like most of us, though. He can put together a cogent reason for being mad, but still demonstrate the lack of self-control associated with, say, road rage.

I get why he gets pissed off about things. Stupidity and hypocrisy are his buttons, and you can imagine that those buttons get pushed every single day. ("Should they?" is a good queestion: going around in a state of perpetual outrage isn't healthy, or fun.) But it seems like he has no "off" switch. Or perhaps a better analogy would be, once you get him into gear, neither he nor anybody else can put the brakes on, or even get him into neutral.

He'd have a better employment record, and would be a more effective advocate for the things he believes in, if he knew how to switch out of fifth gear.

Monday, February 23, 2015

If you apologize

... don't — don't — throw in "if I offended anyone".

You'd never say "I'm sorry if I offended you" to a person's face, unless you wanted the person to know you didn't mean it. (That makes you a cruddy human being, by the way.) Yet every public personage who causes a ruckus by saying something offensive tacks on the "if I offended anyone" bullshit, turning the apology into a giant "fuck you" to everyone who was offended.

Jesus H. Christ. Either apologize or don't waste your breath.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A mindblowing statistic

In the context of all humanity, one city is not much to care about. However, this statistic made my jaw drop. From a lengthy piece on Hong Kong's "Umbrella Revolution":
Twenty percent of Hong Kong’s population is living under the official poverty line, but the city’s 50 richest people, according to the annual list compiled by Forbes, are worth a total of $236 billion (Hong Kong’s entire G.D.P. in 2013, by comparison, was $274 billion).
Historically, has it generally been the case that the richest inhabitants of a city are worth almost as much (86%, in Hong Kong's case) as that city produces annually? Is this normal, in other words, or is Hong Kong a sign of just how rich the rich are these days?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Bad week for news

Sharon Waxman at The Wrap sums up developments this week. (I was going to say "nicely" but there's nothing nice about what happened.)

Briefly: we lost Brian Williams (does anybody believe he'll return to the anchor chair after his six-month suspension?), Jon Stewart (he's only retiring, and he's not even doing that for a while, but if you didn't know better you'd certainly think people had trotted out their undoubtedly pending obits; as Stewart himself bemusedly put it, "Did I die?"), David Carr (a shocking death at a shockingly young 58), and Bob Simon (whose vitality belied his 73 years and whose death in a car accident in NYC was a sick cosmic joke for a veteran war correspondent).

One hell of a crummy week. Couldn't we hear something uplifting, like Rupert Murdoch was going broke?

Imagining Jon Stewart in the anchor chair — not

Variety's co-editor in chief Andrew Wallenstein wrote:
There’s been plenty of evidence for many years suggesting meaningful numbers of Americans get their news from entertainment programs like “The Daily Show” or “The Tonight Show” instead of actual news programs. Planting Stewart in the “Nightly News” anchor chair is really just taking that trend to its logical conclusion.
Talk about completely missing the point of Stewart's work over the last sixteen years!

Stewart hasn't been trying out a different version of the nightly news: he's been trying to make the news live up to its own high standards. He doesn't want us getting our news from a comedian! He wants our news to be good enough that someone like him has to find something else to mock.

(That said, the continued idiocy rampant on the 24-hour news networks suggests Wallenstein isn't the only one who has completely missed the point of Stewart's critiques.)

I'm sure Stewart, the consummate satirist, is familiar with Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant satire Network (1976). He's not going to set himself up as a real-life Howard Beale. (We came close enough to that in the person of Glenn Beck.)

The Anchorman As God is a played-out approach with anyone under fifty, true. That doesn't mean the Anchorman As Court Jester is the way to go.

Wallenstein obviously didn't spend the ten seconds needed to imagine Stewart's reaction to being in Brian Williams' chair: "I've held the media up for ridicule for sixteen years. I've made merciless fun of their every slip. Why in God's name would I make myself the piƱata for the next wiseass host on The Daily Show to bash?"

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Shooting fish in barrels

Eric Bolling complained that Jon Stewart frequently mocked the mistakes news commentators and guests made when they were live on the air. He challenged Stewart to do his own show live, without the benefit of hours of preparation and rehearsal.

Fair enough. Stewart has not been, and I suspect will not be for the rest of his tenure, above taking cheap shots at beleaguered anchors and reporters who got flustered in the moment, the way any of us would be flustered if we were in their shoes. A nation that made Candid Camera and America's Funniest Home Videos hits obviously has a taste for cheap shots and as conservatives like to say, Stewart is just selling the public what it wants.

If a reporter gets flustered while covering breaking news, I can generally ignore the flub. But when a commentator, in the heat of a discussion, says something dumb or offensive, I'm less forgiving. He might not have wanted to air the thought, but he did and there's no taking it back. That's how the game works. Bolling knows that. So does every other talk show participant. If you don't want to be called out for saying stupid things, don't go on a talk show.

Bolling likened Stewart's zingers to shooting fish in a barrel. Well, if you're on the receiving end of those zingers, Eric, remember: you jumped into the barrel.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Alabama's judges on the hot seat

A federal judge recently struck down Alabama's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The Alabama Supreme Court's chief justice, Roy Moore, is having none of it: he has ordered probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The conflict has put Alabama's probate judges in a tough spot. Regardless of what they do, they'll be defying a judge who at least theoretically is in a position to issue marching orders.

I'm not a lawyer, but I don't want to live in a country run on Roy Moore's principles. His logic renders national laws null and void at a state judge's whim, in turn making the federal government irrelevant if a state chooses.

State-level nullification, in other words, is tantamount to insurrection against the federal government. So, uh, Chief Justice Moore, are you ready to spend serious time in the federal pen? That's what you seem to be inviting.

(Having said that, I have to acknowledge that states like Colorado and California are dancing on that same line with their refusal to uphold the federal prohibitions against marijuana. Is it less harmful to society to thumb your nose at federal laws you think are stupid, than to refuse to honor a federal court decision you think is tyrannical and anti-religious? I don't know, but I wouldn't boast about the former being a more "principled" or less divisive stand.)

By the way, the logical backstop to outright nullification is for Alabama's objecting judges to take refuge in their religion: to claim that issuing a marriage license to a same-sex couple would be abetting a sin. Citing religious precept is a well-worn tactic; however, it hasn't been terribly successful in the courts, at least when carried out by bakers and photographers. I wouldn't expect the argument to fare any better when made by judges. In fact, I think judges are in an even less favorable position: unlike bakers and photographers, judges take oaths to uphold the law. If a judge's religious precepts jeopardize that oath, he must ignore those precepts or resign his post.

It'll be interesting to see what Alabama's judges do.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A telling sign

The online New York Times includes, at the bottom of each article, a list of other articles in the same section or the same topic.

For a piece on a new TV show based on Eddie Huang's memoir Fresh Off the Boat, the related articles are all TV-related. Wait, that's not true: there's a piece about ticket sales for the Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But of links to other articles about Asian Americans, nary a one.

If the piece had been about African Americans or Jews or Hispanics, I'm pretty sure there would have been links to several other pieces about some aspect of those groups.

I think this speaks volumes for the low profile Asian Americans have in the mass media.

Perhaps this is only numbers talking: Asian Americans are only a small percentage of the U.S. population. I strongly suspect Native Americans are in the same boat, profile-wise, and for the same reason.