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The Critical Mass

I read the Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Aug. 7

I’ve been out of town the past two weekends. I suppose I could have read The Sunday Boston Globe for you, or The Medina County Pennysaver. Instead,  thought I’d take a break from all the news. But now, here we go again, while listening to The Cowboy Junkies….

1, After Standard & Poors dropped the credit rating of the United States on Friday, the finger-pointing included Republicans blaming Democrats, Democrats blaming Republicans, China blaming free-spending American policy and Europeans blaming S&P’s math. But deep in the story is a startling number that I had not yet encountered, one that suggests why the economy is faltering: “The weakness of the American economy is most evident in the lack of jobs,” The Times writes. “Only 55 percent of working-age adults held full-time jobs in July, the lowest level in modern times.”

2, Thirty-one Americans were killed when their helicopter was shot down Friday in Afghanistan, the single deadliest day for U.S. troops in the almost decade-long war. To date, 1,678 American service members have died in Afghanistan and related actions. Just in case you’d forgotten that was still going on.

3, The Bergson group, covered in a fine layer of history’s dust, is finally being recognized in Israel for its efforts to save Jews and Holocaust victims during World War II. “The Bergsonites were appalled by what they saw as the indifference of the Roosevelt administration and the passivity of the Jewish establishment,” reports The Times, “which staunchly supported the administration and largely accepted its argument that the primary American military objective was to win the war, not to save European Jews.” The Bergson group’s campaign to bring attention to the massacre of Jews included lobbying members of Congress, taking out full-page ads in The Times and The Washington Post and filling Madison Square Garden twice with a pageant called We Will Never Die, supported by the writer Ben Hecht, Broadway impresario Billy Rose and composer Kurt Weil. The group also organized a march on the White House by 400 Orthodox rabbis, “most of them in traditional black garb, a spectacle the likes of which had never been seen in Washington,” The Times writes.  Among the resistors to this movement were traditional Jewish leaders, “apparently afraid of making waves, and losing their own prominence.”

4, On the Jobs page of the Business section, writer Peter Sims points out, “Even the most successful stand-up comedians, like Chris Rock, try thousands of new ideas in front of small club audiences in order to develop a one-hour set.” Ideas that don’t work are merely a part of the process. “Invention and discovery emanate from the ability to try seemingly wild possibilities; to feel comfortable being wrong before being right; to live in the world as a careful observer, open to different experiences; to play with ideas without prematurely judging oneself or others;  to persist through difficulties; and to have a willingness to be misunderstood, sometimes for long periods, despite the conventional wisdom.”

5, In the Sunday Review, “Particularly on the conservative side, we’re seeing a lot of beliefs that have this faith-based quality, ‘We know it’s true because our ideology tells us it’s true,’ ” says Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science  at Emory University. Adds Jon A. Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford, “The minute you decide to buy the Toyota, your evaluation of it goes up.”

6, Check out “The Austerity Survival Guide” in The Strip. In one panel, cartoonist Brian McFadden advises, “For the sake of your own mental health, don’t look up ‘Recession of 1937’ on Wikipedia.” Pounding his laptop with his fists, a man screams “Hey! This happened before, and they’re doing it again?”

7, Geoffrey Grey, who’s written a book about D.B. Cooper, addresses this week’s news that a woman claims her uncle L.D. Cooper was the legendary hijacker, based on a brief conversation she overheard when she was 8 years old. Grey expresses amazement that anyone’s even paying attention to this latest suspect. “After researching the case for a few years and analyzing hundreds of FBI files on the hijacking, I can tell you that the tale of uncle L.D. is as unremarkable as they come in Cooperland,” he writes. I’m sure he’s right about that. But he’s wrong when he writes: “For all the clamoring hope for the day that Cooper is identified and the mask is finally pulled back, we want Cooper to keep getting away. After all these years, we need him to continue to escape.” That’s romantic nonsense. Actually, I want to know who D.B. Cooper was, and what happened to the $200,000 that he had on him when he parachuted out of that jet.  I want to know who Jack the Ripper was.  I want to know if Shakespeare wrote all of those plays. I want to see a Bigfoot skull.

8, In an editorial called “The Truth About Taxes,” The Times reminds us what the non-delusional of us know: “Here is the bottom line. There is no economically sensible or politically honest way to address the deficit without also increasing revenues and reforming the tax code.”

9, Here’s how the Republicans pulled off last week’s anti-American debt deal, according to another Times editorial: “Through a combination of fear and fervor, Republican leaders in Congress and in the presidential campaign have lined up behind a radical new strategy in which all major decisions are made under threat – to shut the government in April, to implode the economy in July, to cut off money for the Federal Aviation Administration in August. Party leaders have said they will do this again and again, in perpetuity.”

10, A movie is being made of the killing on Osama bin Laden, by the same folks who made the acclaimed film The Hurt Locker. The White House is giving the filmmakers unprecedented access to files on the mission. With the film due to be released a month before the 2012 presidential election, it’s image polishing, for sure, but perhaps not the same kind that we accused George W. Bush of practicing with his Mission Accomplished aircraft carrier party. “At least in this president’s case,” writes Maureen Dowd, something was accomplished.”

11, In travel, Seth Sherwood visits one of those charming little Euro-countries overlooked on the Adriatic, Slovenia. “I followed the strains of an avant-Muzak-like take on “Summertime” to Presernov Square, where hundreds of spectators were watching two humanoid snails perform Kama Sutra positions on an open-air stage. Absorbing the scene in the moonlight, I wondered: Would Shakespeare even recognize his own hand buried underneath this unorthodox interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? It looked more like a midsummer night’s acid trip.”

12, Activist and writer Gloria Steinem writes about the South Korean island of Juju, often called one of the most-beautiful places in the world. Massacres have occurred there – thousands of the island’s residents were killed by Japanese occupiers during World War II, and as many 30,000 slaughtered by South Korean troops just before the Korean War, under the apparently unwarranted assumption that they would side with the North Korean communists. Yet the island has retained its physical beauty. Now a new threat looms: A giant naval base is apparently going to scar the coast. The people there have let it be known that they do not want to live amidst ballistic missiles. Steinem writes that “bulldozers were spreading small rocks in preparation for laying concrete over lava, and living coral that is a distinctive natural habitat,” she writes. “Once the bulldozers are out of sight, children pick up those rocks, pile them into towers and plant a peace flag in each one of them.”

13, A small note from The Book Review: “In the new biography David Bowie: Starman, Paul Trynka describes Bowie’s weekend routine when he was starring in The Elephant Man on Broadway in the early 1980s: ‘Every Sunday, he’d buy The New York Times and carefully read through the book reviews. Later in the week, all of the books that had received raves were lying on a table in his room; soon after, he’d finished them.’ On the other hand, Trynka cites a friend who accuses Bowie of having quoted Nietzsche and Khalil Gibran on the basis of reading their book jackets alone. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: May 8

Mesquite is wafting across the deck. The spoils of Rick and Fred’s Saturday afternoon Lake Ontario fishing expedition are in the smoker: Two huge fillets of what the piscadors believe is an Atlantic salmon, and two smaller coho salmon. First music of the day: The spaghetti western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone.

1, “The vaunted Republican network of high-dollar donors and fund-raisers, for so long a fear factor for Democrats, has been slow to commit itself to the 2012 presidential candidates, contributing to the faltering start of the party’s drive to unseat President Obama.”

2, Osama bin Laden, the Times writes, was “an isolated man, perhaps a little bored, presiding over family life while plotting mayhem – still desperate to be heard, intent on outsized influence, musing in his handwritten notebooks about killing more Americans.” While he spent a great deal of time on computers, the compound where Al Qaeda’s No.1 lived his last five years had no Internet, e-mail or phone lines, to help avoid detection. Such security measures “did not extend to Al Qaeda’s No. 3, who needed a cell phone and e-mail to implement plans and give orders to more than one person,” the Times writes. “As a result, Al Qaeda’s third-in-commands had short life expectancies, the fodder of wry jokes in the counter-terrorism field.”

3, Does killing Osama bin Laden matter? “There are hundreds of other Osama bin Ladens left behind,” says one Taliban commander. That’s a point we’ve heard repeatedly, and seems quite believable. But these hundreds are not all on the same page. “Though the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been intertwined, their aims have always differed,” the Times writes. “The Taliban’s primary goal has been to control Afghanistan, whereas Al Qaeda has wanted to establish a global terrorist network.” This is a rift, it is speculated, that the U.S. may exploit in the post-Bin Laden era. Isolated as he was, Bin Laden was “also the main draw for funds from rich supporters in Arab countries,” the Times writes. “The Taliban was already experiencing a shortage of funds a a result of the Arab Spring….” As revolts have erupted in countries such as Libya, Syria and Egypt, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are sharing a smaller piece of an explosive pie.

4, We express shock that Bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan, almost surely with our alleged partner’s blessings. But we’ve often been guilty of such convenient blindness ourselves. Here’s what John F. Burns, a veteran reporter in that part of the world, says of the situation: “Just as America once found it expedient to make allies of men like Bin Laden, training and arming them even while knowing that the jihadis’ embrace of violence in the name of fundamentalist Islam included an enmity for the West at least equal to their loathing of the Soviet Union, so powerful forces at the heart of Pakistan’s government have long found reasons to put expedience in the forefront of its relations with the Islamic militants.”

5, Joanna Russ has died at age 74. “The science fiction writer has the privilege of remaking the world,” the Times writes in her obituary. “Because of this, the genre, especially in the hands of disenfranchised writers, has become a powerful vehicle for political commentary. In the America in which she came of age, Ms. Russ was triply disenfranchised: as a woman, a lesbian and an author of genre fiction who earned her living amid the pomp of university English departments.” Russ’ best-known novel was The Female Man, set in “an idyllic future on Whileaway, a planet without men.”

6, The Nuclear Regulatory Commission seems to be anything but that. Critics complain that it is too close to the industry which it is supposed to regulate. Multiple safety violations often go unpunished. The agency is slow to react when problems occur. It appears to be more concerned with propping up the plants than protecting the public.  “Absent dead bodies,” says one critic, “nothing seems to deter the NRC from sustaining reactor operation.”

7, From David Letterman: “Well, the Republicans were so pleased by the Osama bin Laden raid that today, they grated President Obama full citizenship.”

8, The Ernie Kovacs Collection has been unleashed. A six-DVD set of the cigar-chomping, pioneer TV comic’s surreal shows, starting in 1950 and brought to a halt only when he died in a car accident in 1962. I wonder how TV execs would have responded to Kovacs’ ideas today: “What’s that you say? Three blank-faced gorillas in trench coats called The Nairobi Trio, playing percussion to Robert Maxwell’s dunka-dunk-dunk earworm “Solfeggio,” slowly growing exasperated until one starts hitting the one next to him on the head with a drumstick? I don’t get it….” I don’t imagine, as well, that Kovacs’ cigar would have made it past the TV tastemakers.

The Critical Mass

The Flat Earth Society demands its 15 minutes

The 20-minute bus ride downtown this morning was quiet, as usual. No one was talking about Osama bin Laden. He’s dead. The rest of us had business to tend to. Jobs, classes, appointments to keep.

It’s not that the news about bin Laden isn’t important. It’s serious business. He’s the guy who tests my opposition to the death penalty. We sent a squad of highly trained executioners after one of the world’s evil men – a demagogue born into privilege – and I can’t wait to see the movie. Who are they gonna get to play bin Laden? Obama did what we wanted him to do – it was probably the only thing he could have done. And he did it with the same cool, calculated intellect that he’s used to move this country toward universal health care.

But we also can’t pretend that we haven’t made a lot of enemies with our clunky pursuit of terrorists. We invaded a country that had nothing to to with 9/11. We imprisoned innocent men at Guantanamo without a trial. Our bombs, missiles and pilotless drones have killed and maimed thousands of innocent people.

Perspective gets skewed so easily. Comedy and tragedy are played out in theaters next door to each other. We watched last week through  a fun-house mirror as the news media got all giggly over the Royal wedding. This despite the historical inconvenience that we once went to war with the English to secure our independence, because we had no interest in being governed by a monarchial society in which a privileged few (many of them simple-minded, inbred idiots) were to be addressed as “Royals,” while the rest of us were simply “Commoners.” King George III was a tyrant. William and Kate are a cute couple.

Tornadoes were tearing up the South last week, killing hundreds of Americans, but the public debate was over the insane Birther non-controversy. We were greeted by the ridiculous spectacle of the President of the United States, for the first time in history, being asked to show his papers. He had already done this, by the way, several years ago. But that standard birth certificate wasn’t good enough. And the assurances of Hawaii state officials – both Republican and Democratic – that the president was indeed born in Hawaii wasn’t good enough for our kooky bully fringe. They demanded the long-form birth certificate.

And while you’re digging around in your basement, let’s see your college papers, Mr. President. How else can we explain a black man gaining entrance to Harvard?

Inconsistent thinking twists perspective into M.C. Escher drawings. The same people who are badgering Obama for his kindergarten fingerpaintings didn’t demand to see George W. Bush’s service records when suspicions arose that he had gone AWOL from his service in the Air National Guard. To this day, the records that were released do not clear up the matter. Nor did these same people question how Bush – who, unlike Obama, was actually known to have been a disinterested student – had gained admittance to Yale. He was a “legacy” admission. Daddy was a Yale man, of course.

I suspect that, deep inside the precision instrument that is his brain, Obama does not suffer fools gladly. But that’s a part of the job. So on Saturday night, Obama was at the White House Correspondents Dinner, where he and Saturday Night Live comedian Seth Meyers kicked back with a glass of wine and gave Donald Trump the absolute roasting that he so richly deserved. You could tell by the laughter in the room that most of the people in attendance delighted in seeing this smackdown of Trump – a demagogue born into privilege.

How odd it must have been for the President of the United States to have dealt with this Birther nonsense, and the folks demanding he release his college transcripts, and a news media devoting its dwindling resources to the Royal wedding rather than helping focus attention on the needs of people who had lost their homes to tornadoes. Not to mention putting Donald Trump in his place with a few well-told zingers.  And all the while, Obama knowing he had issued a secret order that, in just hours, would bring the evil that was Osama bin Laden to justice. How dumb does Trump and the rest of his racist crowd look now, with their Birther yapping, while Obama was quietly going about the nation’s work?

Who locked away the gyroscopes that tell us right from wrong, and separate the important from the trivial? The public discourse is not an intelligent process, it’s devolved into an interview with the Flat Earth Society over whether we really put a man on the moon. We’re obsessed with distractions, not issues. Our leaders and the news media, experts who can tell the difference between fact and nonsense, are unwilling to do so. And we have important business to tend to.

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