The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: June 27

I’m back to reading The Sunday Times for you, after a two-week absence that I’m blaming on barbecue and jazz. This morning, Miles Davis’ Miles in the Sky is drifting out the deck speakers, chicken thigh quarters are marinating in a Mexican bitter orange concoction for smoking later this afternoon.

1, The personal stories of soldiers being shipped to Afghanistan, for a year, leads off today’s Times. Families torn apart in pursuit of a dubious goal, taming Afghanistan. An unreachable goal, in some people’s minds, and in history’s annals.

2, More evidence of the Rube Goldberg politics into which we’re pouring our soldiers: Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is attempting to make a deal with the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters that would give the Taliban a share of power in the Afghan government. The story says ethnic groups such as the Hazara fear that this is a return to the same civil war arrangement of the 1990s, resulting the death of 100,000 Afghans, mostly civilians. The story notes that the Taliban, “during their five-year reign in the capital, Kabul, carried out several large-scale massacres of Hazara civilians.” This is being orchestrated by Our Man in Afghanistan, Karzai.

3, Genius columnist Frank Rich hits the Gen. Stanley McChrystal firing like the D-Day invasion, and no one survives. He attacks the arrogant McChrystal and his staff, the Beltway Boys who repeat the conventional thinking to the point that no one can hear a new reality, and Obama for not acting swiftly enough as the Afghanistan war enters Year Nine, with no lucid goal, and for embracing assessments of the situation that have no bearing on  reality.  But most damned is the national press, which completely missed a story that was so clearly understood by an outsider, Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone magazine. Apparently, the biggest fear of the biggest names in journalism is that burning bridges would close off access to the very people who must be held accountable. And they wouldn’t get invited to the parties, don’t forget that.

4, As Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan goes before Congress Monday, The Times headline predicts, “Top Issues at Kagan Hearings May Be Obama and Roberts.” Republicans will use the opportunity to paint Obama as Big Government that must be stopped (What are they saying, “Citizens, fight terrorism and clean up the Gulf Coast on your own?”).  Democrats will use the hearings to go after Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as Big Business. Conventional wisdom is, if Kagan is confirmed, which seems likely, it will keep the court power as it has stood for a while, a 5-4 conservative vote. But why do conservatives fight so tenaciously to eliminate liberal representation in government? Don’t millions of Americans – and on many issues, the liberal point of voice is the majority issue – get a voice, too? What are conservatives afraid of?

5, Quite frankly, we can use a lucid brain  on the Supreme Court, which continues to make incomprehensible rulings. In an editorial, The Times questions a ruling by the court on Monday, which allows businesses to insert fine print into contracts calling for disputes to be settled by arbitration, rather than the courts (even though companies will often reserve the right themselves to take employees to court). In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens points out the obvious: “If a contract is invalid,” The Times writes of the retiring justice’s argument, “how can the arbitration clause it contains still be valid?”

6, On Page 10, a BP program to help clean up the Gulf oil spill, Vessels of Opportunity, may be going awry in the Alabama fishing town of Bayou La Batre. The program is intended to pay fishermen who have been put out of work by the spill by hiring their boats to help in the cleanup. But many local boats and fishermen remain idle, while BP hires Florida people with sport-fishing boats. “As the money flows in,” The Times writes, “many residents say it is not reaching them.”

7, On Page 13 is a full-page ad for BP, touting the company’s cleanup efforts.

8, In the Magazine, “Tuna’s End” forecasts a dim future for the bluefin tuna, being hunted and hounded to oceanic irrelevancy. “When BP’s Horizon Deepwater oil rig collapsed into the sea, it spewed oil across the only bluefin spawning grounds in the Americas just as the tuna were preparing to mate.” If the planet’s health is too big a concern to grasp, then let me put it this way: Say good-bye to your sushi.

9, DNA testing has entered the world of animal abuse. Investigators are following the DNA trail of abused dogs back to the breeders who supply the dog-fight rings. A dog-fighting DNA data base has been created.

10, Airplane! is 30 years old! “Ever seen a grown man naked?”

11, Speaking Friday at California State University, renowned thinker Sarah Palin criticized students who discovered, in a trash bin, several pages of her appearance contract at the school. While the papers revealed Palin requests such as first-class airline travel for two and luxury hotel accommodations, all standard stuff for a person who represents herself as a hockey mom, they did not include her actual speaking fee, which is frequently $100,000. “Students who spent their valuable, precious time diving through Dumpsters before this event in order to silence someone, what a wasted resource,” Palin told her audience, separated from the non-paying public by a chain-link fence surrounding the cafeteria where she was speaking. “A suggestion for those Dumpster divers: Instead of trying to tell people to sit down and shut up, spend some time telling people like our president to stand up.” Fine, and a suggestion for the half-term governor: Isn’t she likewise telling people who protest her appearance to sit down and shut up?

12, The Week in Review asks the question many of us have been asking since Bush’s invasion of Iraq: “Has the military’s still-expanding fight against terrorism now become the fuel for terrorism, recruiting more militants than it kills?” This follows Monday’s hearing for Faisal Shahzad, the man accused of attempting to blow up a bomb-laden SUV in Times Square on May 1, in which he referred to himself as “a part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people.” Shazhad was not some Taliban soldier crouching in an Afghanistan cave, but a former financial analyst for Elizabeth Arden cosmetics in Stamford, Conn.

13, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Edwin Jackson threw the fourth no-hitter of the baseball season, although he needed a hefty 149 pitches to do it, walking eight and hitting a batter, with another reaching base on an error, in beating Tampa Bay 1-0. That’s the cool thing about baseball, the only sport worth following: One miracle never looks like the next.

14, England plays Germany today in World Cup soccer, a rivalry that dates back to 1914. “Three World Cups!” German fans have chanted at English fans, reminding them that Germany has won three championships to England’s one. “Two World Wars!” English fans have responded.

15, Colorado approved medical marijuana use in 2000, and is still finding its way through the legalities of the new commercial enterprise. More than 80,000 Colorado residents have medical marijuana prescriptions, and the rate is growing at about 1,000 a day. The Times reports that “a startling number of residents turned out to be in ‘severe pain,’ the most popular of eight conditions that can be treated legally with the once-demonized weed.”

16, A retrospective of Beat artist Brion Gysin opens July 7 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in the Bronx. Gysin’s wide-ranging career may have hurt him commercially. “You should hammer one nail all your life, and I didn’t do that,” he wrote to a critic late in his life. “I hammered on a lot of nails like a xylophone.” But he built interesting things, from paintings to sound poems to the famous flashing-light “Dreamachine.” Perhaps Gysin’s restlessness will appeal to today’s modern creators, defined by The Times as, ” ‘I’m in a band; I paint; I design clothes; I’m an actor’ artists.”

17, The Travel section follows dead writer Henry James around the Tuscany and Umbria regions of Italy, where, James wrote, a visitor’s  “first care must be to ignore the very dream of haste, walking everywhere very slowly and very much at random.”

18, GPS companies have determined that drivers prefer to get their automated instructions from a woman’s voice. Garmin, a leading GPS manufacturer, has voices named American Jill, Deutsch Yannick, Espanol Paula and Norsk Nora.  I am still awaiting confirmation of the story I once heard that one GPS company was planning to use the voice of Bob Dylan. “Turn right on Desolation Boulevard!”

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