Sunday, February 26, 2006

Arrivederci, Torino

I’m certainly not the first person to observe that much of the fun has gone out of watching the Olympics since the Cold War ended. Sure, America now faces an even more implacable foe than the U.S.S.R., but as Bob Costas has noted, it’s not like Al-Qaida is going to start a gymnastics team.

During the Cold War, the Olympics were a safe outlet for patriotism and nationalism. The excesses and ambiguities of American foreign policy melted away during the games. We were the good guys, and what’s more, we were the underdogs—at least at the Winter Olympics. The Communist Bloc nations afforded their athletics generous state support that was unparalleled in the West. To the Soviet athlete, achieving excellence in an Olympic sport meant that he got to enjoy material comforts that were denied to his countrymen; for an American, it meant rising every day at dawn to drive hundreds of miles across the heartland to the nearest training facility.

At the same time, the Olympics provided relief from Cold War tensions, and reminded us of our common humanity. The East German figure skater or Romanian gymnast might have been loyal communists, but it was easy to imagine them as simply cursed by birth to be born under a repressive regime, with sport their only outlet for true expression. They were worthy of our admiration.

All that’s changed. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact nations means that East European Olympic prowess has been diluted. Even during the Winter Games, America sits near the top of the medal standings. America’s material wealth has never seemed more on display during the Olympics than at Turin (I understand that American snowboarders wear outfits that are designed to hold iPods) along with its social inequities; the U.S. Winter Olympic team has all the diversity of a country club. And when a skier who boasts about competing drunk can get a corporate sponsorship, the notion that American athletes fend for themselves seems almost laughable.

Nor do the Olympics provide much of an escape from political conflict anymore. The shadow of terrorism hangs over the games as it does every large international gathering. The 2002 Salt Lake City games were as much a reminder of America vulnerability as a symbol of American resilience.

Then again, nostalgia can be a dangerous and deceptive thing. It magnifies the good while blurring the bad. It is fitting that among this year’s Oscar nominees is “Munich”, which explores the events that unfolded after the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Cold War politics disrupted the 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympics, with the Americans boycotting the former and the Soviets the latter.

Those boycotts are reminders that Olympians were not only vessels for our national ambitions, but also pawns in a political chess match. One suspects that they much prefer simply being athletes as opposed to archetypes. For all the scandals and commercialism, despite Tanya Harding and Bode Miller, the Olympics may be purer now than when the Stars and Stripes duked it out every four years with the Hammer and Sickle--even if they are much less interesting.

He won't need that bullet anymore

When I first heard that Don Knotts had died, I was prepared to write that by leaving "The Andy Griffith Show", he had started an ignomious tradition of leaving a successful television show in its prime, to be followed by the likes of McLean Stevenson, Shelley Long and David Caruso, to name a few.

But the Internet Movie Database tells me that when the show started, Knotts and Andy Griffith each agreed they would only do it for five years. By the time Griffith changed his mind and asked Knotts to stay on, the bug-eyed actor was already under contract with another studio. Therefore, I'm letting him off the hook.

So rest in peace, Mr. Furley.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Reaping what you sow

William Grieder says that five years of exaggerating the threat of terrorism for political gain is blowing up in President Bush's face now that he finds himself on the defensive over the Dubai Ports deal:

Hysteria launched Bush's invasion of Iraq. It created that monstrosity called Homeland Security and pumped up defense spending by more than 40 percent. Hysteria has been used to realign US foreign policy for permanent imperial war-making, whenever and wherever we find something frightening afoot in the world. Hysteria will justify the "long war" now fondly embraced by Field Marshal Rumsfeld. It has also slaughtered a number of Democrats who were not sufficiently hysterical. It saved George Bush's butt in 2004.

Bush was the principal author, along with his straight-shooting Vice President, and now he is hoisted by his own fear-mongering propaganda. The basic hysteria was invented from risks of terrorism, enlarged ridiculously by the President's open-ended claim that we are endangered everywhere and anywhere (he decides where). Anyone who resists that proposition is a coward or, worse, a subversive. We are enticed to believe we are fighting a new cold war. But are we? People are entitled to ask. Bush picked at their emotional wounds after 9/11 and encouraged them to imagine endless versions of even-larger danger. What if someone shipped a nuke into New York Harbor? Or poured anthrax in the drinking water? OK, a lot of Americans got scared, even people who ought to know better.

So why is the fearmonger-in-chief being so casual about this Dubai business?

Because at some level of consciousness even George Bush knows the inflated fears are bogus. ...It would be nice to imagine this ridiculous episode will prompt reconsideration, cool down exploitative jingoism and provoke a more rational discussion of the multiplying absurdities. I doubt it. At least it will be satisfying to see Bush toasted irrationally, since he lit the match.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Goodbye, Al Neri

One scene in particular stands out when I think back on the recently deceased Richard Bright’s portrayal of Al Neri, Michael Corleone’s bodyguard and enforcer, in “The Godfather” trilogy. In the second film, after Michael’s mother dies, he is seemingly moved by his sister Connie to reconcile with their dimwitted brother, Fredo, who Michael believes has betrayed him. Michael had previously told Neri that no harm was to come to Fredo while his mother was alive.

So Michael walks into the room in which his mother is laid out and walks over to Fredo, who is seated. Michael opens his arms and hugs his brother, who remains seated. Michael looks at Neri, who is standing across the room. Neri’s eyes briefly meet Michael’s gaze, then he slowly lowers his head. With that simple gesture, Bright tells us that Neri has been given a command that he does not want to obey but knows he must. At the same time, we see that whatever good was left in Michael is now dead.

It is among the film's most powerful moments, and for that alone Bright deserves his place in film history.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Slots for Mario!!!!!!!

I'm a cynic. It may not be the best way to go through life, but it does afford you plenty of opportunities to say "I told you so."

My cynicism leads me to reflexively oppose any attempt to link Pittsburgh's slots license to the construction of a new "multi-purpose arena", as our politicians euphemistically call it, an idea the Post-Gazette supports in this editorial. My opposition extends to the Penguins' own proposal, under which Isle of Capri would pay $290 million toward construction of a new arena.

The Isle of Capri plan raises several questions: Would this cover all costs? Is Isle of Capri going to ask for any public dollars to build the arena? And who would own this facility? Keep in mind that the Steelers do not own Heinz Field and the Pirates do not own PNC Park--they pay rent, but they also keep the lion's share of revenues from even non-sporting events. In other words, the facilities are publicly owned, meaning no taxes are collected, but the public sees little benefit. Indeed, the WPIAL has to beg the Steelers to allow them to use Heinz Field for their championships as they used Three Rivers Stadium for years. Would the Penguins or Isle of Capri get the same great deal? The cynic in me says yes.

The PG and some politicians, including Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, believe that anyone who gets the license should pony up funds for a new arena. Let's consider that for a moment. This idea that the casino operator needs to give something back to the community seems to be a tacit admission of two things: one, that the casino license is worth far, far more than the $50 million fee, and two, that there will some deliterious effects on the community. Why else would the slots parlor owe the city or county anything more than any other private business?

But let's accept the premise, for the sake of argument. What should the slots operator give back to the community? It might help us to think back to grade school, when we were taught to distinguish between wants and needs. Does the city need a new hockey--excuse me, multi-purpose--arena? Even the Post-Gazette has to concede that at least in the short-term, it does not:

Stories about the NCAA basketball tournament and major concert tours skipping Pittsburgh because of the arena's flaws have been generally debunked...

So, the city wants a new arena, but the it needs major repairs to its water system. The city wants to keep its NHL franchise, but it needs better roads. One wonders if our politicians will be able to perceive the difference, or if they will even care.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


I want one of these.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Brokeback Mania

As a service to my readers, I now list all the "Brokeback Mountain" trailer spoofs I could find online. Let me know if you find others:

Dumb and Dumber
Forrest Gump
Back to the Future
Top Gun
Charlie's Angels
Star Wars
Rush Hour
The Office

Sunday, February 12, 2006

King George

On ABC's This Week, George Will, who hardly keeps company with the so-called "Angry Left", just called the president's assertion of sweeping domestic spying powers "monarchical" and dared to invoke logic in deflating the administration's argument that the disclosure of this program alerts terrorists to our methods. Did not the passage of the FISA legislation in the 1970s and the USA Patriot Act more recently alert all our enemies that we might want to listen in on their conversations from time-to-time?

Why does George Will want the terrorists to win?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Riding with the King

I just finished reading the unabridged version of Stephen King's "The Stand", and it confirms my opinion that King is a great writer whose best works deserve to be considered literature, and not just pop fiction. Sure, King has written his share of schlock, but he also produced beautifully written and haunting stories such as "Bag of Bones", "Hearts in Atlantis", and "It". What King appreciates, and what many modern writers forget, is the power of great story telling.

In his memoir, "On Writing", King acknowledged that popular writers are consigned to a literary ghetto by critics and the literati, and it has even crept into his fiction; many of King's protaganists have been popular writers nursing a smidge of resentment against the establishment that has rejected them. King lashed out at these snobs when he received an honorary National Book Award in 2003:

King's speech was humorous, sentimental and defiant. He remembered his early years of writing, the typewriter sandwiched in the laundry room between the washer and dryer. He said he had been ready to give up on "Carrie," now a modern horror classic, only to be talked out of by his wife, Tabitha.

He also urged the book foundation not to make his award a case of "tokenism," an isolated tribute to commercially successfully writers. And he called on the industry as a whole to pay more attention, saying he had no "use for those who make a point of pride in saying they have never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer."

"What do you think," he asked, "you get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?"

Indeed. The people who would dismiss out of hand popular fiction are the same people who brag about never watching television. A closed mind is a closed mind, no matter how much Proust you've read.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

At last

The 1970s are over.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Friendship is friendship and a wonderful thing

One of my favorite movies currently is showing on Encore on On Demand--"American Buffalo" . It's based on a David Mamet play. Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz have a great rapport, and the dialogue is beyond belief.

Of course, another great Mamet adaptation, and one that is better known, is "Glengarry Glen Ross", for which Al Pacino received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the same year in which he won the Oscar for Best Actor for "Scent of a Woman." Arguably, the academy gave the nod to Pacino that year to make up for all the years in which he was overlooked, akin to Paul Newman getting the Oscar for "The Color of Money."

The Thought Police

The European Union seeks to appease Muslim extremists who, in response to a newspaper cartoon, threaten violence, and the Bush administration, Christopher Hitchens tells us, is happy to oblige:

As well as being a small masterpiece of inarticulacy and self-abnegation, the statement from the State Department about this week's international Muslim pogrom against the free press was also accidentally accurate.

"Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief."

Thus the hapless Sean McCormack, reading painfully slowly from what was reported as a prepared government statement. How appalling for the country of the First Amendment to be represented by such an administration.

The EU says that freedom of expression must be balanced against respect for religious beliefs. But respect cannot be codified--at least not in free societies. No one can force me to respect your beliefs, nor you mine. And that freedom means nothing unless we are able to express it. Again, Hitchens:

...there is a strong case for saying that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and those who have reprinted its efforts out of solidarity, are affirming the right to criticize not merely Islam but religion in general. And the Bush administration has no business at all expressing an opinion on that. If it is to say anything, it is constitutionally obliged to uphold the right and no more. You can be sure that the relevant European newspapers have also printed their share of cartoons making fun of nuns and popes and taunting child-raping priests. There was a time when this would not have been possible. But those taboos have been broken.

Which is what taboos are for.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the Vatican should issue this statement:

"The right to freedom of thought and expression ... cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers," the Vatican said in its first statement on the controversy.

Um, so, does believers include, say, those who worship Satan? People have used religion to justify all manner of wrongs, all manner of evil. Orthodox Jews believe any representation of God is wrong, and won't even write out his name. Should they react with violence and condemnation when this taboo is violated?

Europe is understandly afraid of provoking its growing Muslim population, and whipping the fanatics among them into a frenzy. Certainly, it is vital for the West to continue to make clear that it is not waging a war on Islam, but on violent extremism.

But Europeans more than anyone should understand the dangers of appeasement. It merely encourages more demands, more threats, more violence, until one is left with no choice but to answer in kind.

(See also Andrew Sullivan on this topic.)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Pottery Barn Rule

The Bush administration, having grown tired of trying to rebuild Iraq, waves its hands and says "I'm out.":

The Bush administration does not intend to seek any new funds for Iraq reconstruction in the budget request going before Congress in February, officials say. The decision signals the winding down of an $18.4 billion U.S. rebuilding effort in which roughly half of the money was eaten away by the insurgency, a buildup of Iraq's criminal justice system and the investigation and trial of Saddam Hussein....

"The U.S. never intended to completely rebuild Iraq," Brig. Gen. William McCoy, the Army Corps of Engineers commander overseeing the work, told reporters at a recent news conference. In an interview this past week, McCoy said: "This was just supposed to be a jump-start."

Memo to Gen. McCoy: WE'RE THE ONES WHO WRECKED THE PLACE TO BEGIN WITH. We started this unprovoked war with virtually no support from our allies (oh, wait, I forgot Poland) and now we expect someone else to clean up our mess? But don't take my word for it:

In a speech on Aug. 8, 2003, President Bush promised more for Iraq.

"In a lot of places, the infrastructure is as good as it was at prewar levels, which is satisfactory, but it's not the ultimate aim. The ultimate aim is for the infrastructure to be the best in the region," Bush said.

Well, I guess we know what the president's promises are worth. As though we didn't know already.

(Thanks to Altercation.)