Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Tag: Fox News

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: April 9

I’m planning on smoking ribs slow over mesquite wood this morning, starting at maybe 11 a.m. But as of now, 7 a.m., snow is whirling past the windows and settling on the deck, at the feet of the Adirondack chairs. The scene looks like a calendar photo, except for the incongruity of the lush backdrop of trees with their new, bright green foliage.  Snow. It’s Mother’s Day. And yeah,  I gotta call Mom in a few hours….

1, “The fear that began in Athens, raced through Europe, and finally shook the stock market in the United States is now affecting the broader global economy,” The Times‘ front page story says of the financial collapse of Greece, “from the ability of Asian corporations to raise money to the outlook for money-market funds where American savers park their cash.” How odd it is that the cradle of western civilization, and a bit player all of these centuries since, is threatening to bring us down. For those folks who haven’t acknowledged that U.S. economic policies, fueled by the deregulation mania of the Bush era, dragged down the rest of the world’s economies in 2008, just consider for a moment what Greece’s little hiccup in the global economy has done.

2, It’s a new world, and we’d better get used to it. “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as Afternoon tea,” says Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric, born in the U.S., now living in Yemen. We can no longer keep at arms’ length the terror tactics that have plagued much of the world for centuries. As we saw last week, all of the military expenditures we can wring from our citizens couldn’t keep a disturbed loner from trying to blow up Times Square with an SUV loaded with fertilizer. And it couldn’t keep a disturbed loner from going on a shooting rampage  at Fort Hood. And it couldn’t keep a disturbed loner from trying to set his underwear on fire while flying into Detroit on an airliner. They were all hearing voices in their heads from the other side of the world.

3, No surprise, but in a front-page story, The Times reports that BP – the company responsible for what could be the biggest single environmental disaster this country has faced, the Gulf Coast oil spill – “continues to lag behind other oil companies when it comes to safety, according to federal officials and industry analysts.” After several serious accidents in the past few years, some of which caused deaths, the company promised to clean up its act, yet didn’t.

4, A headline that really didn’t need the accompanying story: “Republicans’ Calls For Offshore Drilling Have Grown Quieter.”

5, So far, the war in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 1,044 American servicemen.

6, In The Week in Review, William Dalrymple writes of the many parallels between today’s war in Afghanistan and the First Anglo-Afghan War. Politically and culturally, the Afghanistan that the British invaded 150 years ago feels like the Afghanistan of today. Dalrymple’s essay focuses on the inhospitable terrain that 18,000 British troops and perhaps half that many Indian camp followers found themselves retreating through in the winter of 1842. Frostbitten and picked off one by one by snipers, the British force was eventually surrounded and wiped out. One man was allowed to survive to tell the story.

7, In sports, the Boston Bruins’ pleasantly surprising run in the NHL playoffs has been aided by the acquisition of a “cagey veteran,” as they say in sports cliche, who wasn’t even on a team at the start of the season. And he does have the best jersey name in all of sports: SATAN, as in Miroslav Satan.

8, A stunningly beautiful photo on the front of the Travel section shows a set of 800-year-old ruined towers, Chateaux de Lastours, perched on a rocky crag for defensive purposes, in southwestern France. The defenses didn’t work. The Cathars, anti-Catholic zealots, were wiped out here in 1209 by “cross-bearing warriors from northern France and Germany obeying the holy call,” who went about “slaughtering the heretics and pillaging their lands with a savagery that was startling even by the standards of the Middle Ages.” According to writer Tony Perrottet (author of Napoleon’s Private Parts), the crusaders’ leader, “the sadistic Simon de Montfort, resorted to primitive psychological warfare. He ordered his troops to gouge out the eyes of 100 luckless prisoners, cut off their noses and lips, then send them back to the towers led by a prisoner with one remaining eye.” God is on our side, indeed.  Today, it’s a region of vineyards and olive groves, invaded by tourists in fine hiking boots, who afterward start their meal with a baked chevre.

9, Travel writer Simon Akam has come up with a dandy idea. He purchased a 100-year-old Baedeker Handbook to Great Britain and followed one of the suggested routes, a train trip from Glasgow to Fort William. According to a recent poll in Wanderlust Magazine, that trip remains “the most scenic railway journey in the world.” An accompanying photo seems to agree: it’s the Glenfinnan Viaduct, with a romantic loch in the background (Although that purity is a bit tainted by the note that the scene is “familiar to many from its role in the Harry Potter films”). Akam offers this amazing piece of history.  “In 1942, after the Royal Air Force devastated the German port of Lubeck, the Nazis reputedly walked their way through the Britain guidebook, and bombed Exeter, Bath, York, Norwich and then Canterbury.”

10, Liesl Schillinger, thank you for putting into words exactly how I feel about TV news anchors. In her profile of MSNBC newsheads Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, Schillinger writes, “With the attention deficit disorder of the last decade, as channels have multiplied, neurotic networks have dumbed down their morning mainstays in an attempt to retain distractable viewers, cramming the programs with cooking segments, scripted happy talk, interviews with grinning tourists and endless puffy promotional appearances with celebrities – plugging new movies, diets, beauty books and so on. A sprinkling of hard news is thrown on top to sop up some of the sugar.” Schillinger builds a case for the show, Morning Joe, as breaking that mold. Only slightly. “I tend to watch almost anything like this in terms of: Is this romantic comedy?” says director and writer Nora Ephrom. “And it is.”

11, In discussing the increasing chasm between news and opinion, Frank Rich points out an incident that illustrates news reporting’s complete disconnect from its responsibilities. Apparently, Fox News’ Sean Hannity asked his viewers to vote, via text message, “if you think the Times Square Bombing suspect acted alone,” or with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Fox viewers chose – apparently incorrectly, by the available evidence – Al Qaeda.  “So what if the correct answer is the Pakistani Taliban?” Rich writes. “Fox viewers are officially entitled to choose their own facts. You’d think that if America is at war with terrorists, it might be helpful if we new precisely which terrorists we are at war with.” Not to defend Fox, but I’ve seen many examples throughout the media of viewers and readers being polled in such a manner, often on questions that even well-informed authorities don’t yet have all of the facts.

12, The Magazine reprints “asparagus alla fontina,” a 1977 recipe that combines asparagas, proscutto, eggs and gruyere cheese in a casserole situation. Carlo Mirarchi, a Brooklyn chef, has modernized it for 2010 appetites. “The unfailing difference between old vegetable recipes and new ones,” writes Amanda Hesser, “is that cooking times have plunged.”

13, In the Book Review, Jim Baggott’s The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949, examines why the Nazis weren’t the first to drop the big one. One German scientist suggests they could have completed the atom bomb if they’d wanted to. Baggott leans more in the direction of an under-funded German program; German scientists were afraid to ask Hitler for enough development money, out of fear the thing wouldn’t work. “It was America’s strengths as a society,” writes reviewer Michael Dobbs, “and not simply as a military power, that led to victory in both World War II and the cold war.”

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday Times, so you don’t have to: Feb. 28

Good morning. I made Grandma Spevak’s sausage yesterday, grinding the meat and stuffing the hog casings myself. Now the house still smells like garlic and pork fat. Let’s get to The Times:

1, Media reports immediately following Barack Obama’s Thursday health care summit left me dismayed. The pre-event narrative that the meeting would be nothing more than “political theater” droned on after Barack had left the building, lazy reporters seemingly oblivious to what he had accomplished: Challenged to present their case, Obama demonstrated that Republicans had no case. They were empty mantras of inhumanity, tangled in their own hypocrisies. Surely superhero columnist Frank Rich will set the record straight today. Alas, Rich also chooses to dismiss the summit as “kabuki theater,” instead suggesting the biggest event of February 2010 would be the terrorist who flew a small airplane into an office building in Austin, Texas, because he was angry with the IRS. In “The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged,” Rich discusses how the right wing is crumbling and cowering to a growing cast of conspiracy nut cases, including Austin kamikaze Joe Stack, who is being hailed as a hero by some of these folks. The cynic in me acknowledges Rich is correct. The optimist in me hopes I am also right, that Obama’s summit was setting the stage, kabuki theater or not, for passage of health care reform.

2, In “The Cost of Doing Nothing,” Karen Davis, president of a non-profit health care research group, the Commonwealth Fund, says, “People think if we do nothing, we will have what we have now. In fact, what we will have is a substantial deterioration of what we do have.” This is not simply a reactionary prediction, the story reports, but the assessment of “nearly every mainstream analysis.”

3, “Pelosi’s Struggle: To Corral Votes For Health Bill” details how health care reform passage teeters on the votes of representatives like Dennis Cardoza of California. His wife, The Times reports he says, is a doctor who “comes home every night angry and frustrated at insurance companies denying people coverage they have paid for.” That guy’s vote should be a slam dunk. And yet he may not vote for health care reform because the bill “lacks anti-abortion language he favors, and he does not think it goes far enough in cutting costs.” What Mr. Cardoza needs to understand is that the health care reform bill is not about the abortion issue: That was Roe v. Wade. As for cutting costs, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated the health care reform bill will result in a substantial lowering of the deficit. One thing we’ve learned in this debate is health care is the biggest single drag on the national economy.

4, Al Gore’s clearly reasoned op-ed piece, “We Can’t Wish Away Climate Change,” is an elegant response to the anti-global warming cabal. At stake is our ecology, as well as our economy and national security. He concedes that the task is difficult and “tracks the outer boundary of what we are capable of doing.”Gore quotes Winston Churchill: “Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required.” To those standing in the way of health care reform, I’ll say the same.

5, This edition of The Times contains early reports on the Chilean earthquake, whose 8.8 magnitude is described as “vastly more powerful” than the 7.0 that hit Haiti on Jan. 12, killing 200,000 people. Damage and loss of life appears significant in Chile, although nowhere near as devastating as in Haiti, because of several factors, including better construction practices and the epicenter being farther out to sea. But you look at the photos – collapsed highway bridges that look just like American bridges – and ask: Are we ready for such an event here?

6, Rappers do it, now a few writers are doing it. In “The Free-Appropriation Writer,” we learn that a handful of books have emerged which use the words of other writers, often without credit. This has always been called plagiarism in the publishing world. A teenage German writer defended her use of a blogger and novelist’s words for her own novel about Berlin’s club scene by saying, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” That’s probably something she learned while listening to remixes on the dance floor. “Our would-be novelist says nothing is original,” replies Patrick Ross, director of The Copyright Alliance, “yet the passages she lifted from other books were original expressions in those books, even if the ideas were not new.” If stealing is an innovation that will encourage people to read, I’m not liking the 21st Century very much.

7, The Times has increasingly been exploring blogs. While it has yet to discover The Critical Mass, it takes note of a blog called “Been Doon So Long,” and a note lamenting the marketing of wine. “You walk into a wine store and it is a bit like walking into a dream, or maybe a Borgesian nightmare. Every label from those with depictions of stately faux chateaux to the goofy bears, naughty crocodiles, 48-pound roosters, and mad fish, is seemingly shrieking at top volume, trying to tell its story.”

8, In “A Question of What to Ask,” the answer as to why results on the same issues can differ so wildly from poll to poll is often in how the question is asked. A New York Times/CBS poll asked if people favored the public option in health care reform, and supplied the context of “a government-administered health insurance plan – something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older get.” So 66 percent of people said yes. But when a Fox News poll asked the question, its context was “a government-run health insurance plan,” resulting in 44 percent supporting the idea. The point is, even though both questions were supposedly about the public option, they’re not the same question.

9, In Arts & Leisure, we’re reminded that the Western literary tradition “teems with pathologically violent men.” In a question provoked by the recent shooting spree at the University of Alabama at Huntsville by neuroscientist Amy Bishop, “The Violence That Art Didn’t See Coming” wonders why violent women portrayed in art, especially film, are seen as exceptions. If you’re hoping for an answer by the time you get to the end of the long essay, you’ll be disappointed.

10, Pete Hamill has the pleasure of reviewing Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend. Hamill’s tone is one of an unforgiving fan who feels the game was damaged when the Giants and the Dodgers left for California, and destroyed when performance-enhancing drugs entered the game. He longs for the old days, and is grateful for author James S. Hirsch to have allowed us to catch this glimpse of it. When Hirsch writes that Mays would play stickball with kids before his games, Hamill writes appreciatively, “The young should know that that there was once a time when Willie Mays lived among the people who came to the ballpark.”

11, Nina Simone lived among us as well, although I’m not sure I would have wanted to have a front-row seat. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone gives us the enormously talented and enormously difficult singer in full diva. “I will never be your clown,” she once raged to a French audience as her career was in decline, writes author Nadine Cohodas. “I don’t wear a painted smile on my face, like Louis Armstrong.”

12, In a review of Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory, author Peter Hessler is quoted on the dangers inherent in China’s rapid urbanization:  “It’s hard to imagine another place where people take such joy in driving so badly…. They don’t mind if you tailgate, or pass on the right or drive on the sidewalk. You can back down a highway entrance ramp without anybody batting an eyelash.” Hessler’s own cross-China driving includes encounters with locals such as the fung shui master whose specialties include selecting grave sites.

The Critical Mass

I read the Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Jan. 10

1, A front-page profile of Roger Ailes, the head of the right-handed propaganda machine Fox News, concludes with this quote from former Clinton aid James Carville: “If he were a Democrat, I think there would be 67 Democratic senators right now.” Dwell on that for a moment. Should anyone in the media – be they conservative, liberal or middle of the road – have that kind of power to influence who represents us?

2, In yet another alarming front-page story, “Officials Obscured Truth Of Migrant Deaths in Jail,” we learn of 107 known deaths of immigrants while held in detention in this country since 2003, and the extraordinary lengths that were taken to cover up the crimes. In an attempt to halt our slide into South American Banana Republic status, The Times writes, “The Obama administration has vowed to overhaul immigration detention, a haphazard network of privately run jails, federal centers and county cells where the government holds non-citizens while it tries to deport them.”

3, It’s bank bonus season. Less than one year after the bailout, “Goldman Sachs is expected to pay its employees an average of about $595,000 apiece for 2009, one of the most-profitable years in its 141-year history.”

4, Genocide was big in the 20th Century. Between 1915 and 1918, an estimated one million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman Turks. In “Secrets Revealed in Turkey Revive Armenian Identity,” Fethiye Cetin recalls the day her grandmother, a young girl at the time, “saw men’s throats being cut and bodies being thrown in the Tigris River, which ran red for days.” She watched “her own grandmother drown two of her own grandchildren before she herself jumped into the water and disappeared.”

5, But some folks have stood up against tyranny. Freya Von Moltke has died at age 98. She helped build a group of Nazi resistors that included her husband, who was hanged for his role in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. Moltke hid her husband’s letters and documents in beehives around her estate, items that The Times writes “have proved valuable to scholars for their gripping portrayal of heroic, almost certainly futile resistance, as well as their glimpses at daily life in the Third Reich.”  Moltke recalled one incident in 1931 or ’32, when she saw a man in the darkness of a movie theater. “I thought to myself, ‘What terrifying eyes,’ ” she said. When the house lights went up, she saw that the eyes had belonged to Hitler.

6, Thankfully, I don’t get The Golf Channel with my cable package, so I’ll never see Being John Daly, a reality show  which begins on March 2. Thanks to lap-band surgery, he’s lost 116 pounds, down from a high of 298. “I no longer do the wild and crazy things I used to do,” the 43-year-old bad-guy golfer says, perhaps to the dismay of the show’s producers. Time to start fielding proposals for Being Tiger Woods.

7, Forget oil. The smart technology is going green, and if we don’t get on board, we’ll pay dearly.  Thomas L. Friedman notes in his column “Who’s Sleeping Now?”  that China understands that the  energy technology revolution “is both a necessity and a reality, and they do not intend to miss it.”

8, Frank Rich hauls the banks out into the light of day in his column. “Americans must be told the full story of how Wall Street gamed and inflated the housing bubble, made out like bandits, and then left millions of households in ruin,” he writes in “The Other Plot to Wreck America” in The Week in Review. Without a withering investigation, the status quo will remain. “That’s the ticking time bomb scenario that truly imperils us all.”

9, Sunday Styles, where I rarely linger except to laugh at the photos of celebrities with dogs in their purses, writes of the urban caveman movement. This involves keeping a freezer of meat and organs in your New York City apartment. “The caveman lifestyle,” it reports, “involves eating large quantities of meat and then fasting between meals to approximate the lean times that his distant ancestors faced between hunts. Vegetables and fruits are fine, but he avoids foods like bread that were unavailable before the invention of agriculture.”

10, A page from Arts & Leisure reminds us of actors who never could escape their most-prominent roles. Dawn Wells, of course, as Gilligan Island‘s Mary Ann. Jamie Farr as M*A*S*H‘s Cpl. Maxwell Klinger. Larry Storch as F Troop‘s Cpl. Randolph Agarn. The 83-year-old Storch still has the battered cavalry hat he wore in the show. Despite his role as the face people remember when thinking of bumbling Indian fighters, “The most money I ever made,” Storch says, “was in a McDonald’s hamburger commercial.”

11. The reputation of Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who we kept out of the Soviets’ hands at the end of World War II and spirited away to the U.S. to built our own space program, gets busted up pretty good in a review of Dark Side of the Moon: Wernher von Braun, the Third Reich, and the Space Race. Far from an unfortunate victim pushed into creating the missiles that the Nazis rained down upon London, “he was a member of the Nazi Party and the SS, and knew he was developing weapons at Peenemunde and that the weapons were manufactured by slave labor,” reviewer David Holloway writes of Wayne Biddle’s book. Biddle thoughtfully questions how, Holloway writes, “scientists and engineers, by claiming to be ‘apolitical,’ often escape being held to account for what they help to produce.”

12, The Book Review’s final count for 2009 says that the weekly hardcover non-fiction list featured 26 conservative-oriented books listed at No. 1 (paced by Mark R. Levine’s anti-Obama Liberty and Tyranny), compared to only two for liberal books. In what I’m sure is an unrelated matter, the trade paperback list was dominated by two books featuring zombies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and World War Z.

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