Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cannonball Read #28: Diplomacy, by Henry Kissinger

I recently was introduced to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, who is enjoying a somewhat surprising renaissance, given the long, slow drift towards secularism in the West and the general decay of diplomacy. Niebuhr was a truly fascinating individual, able to blend spirituality and secularism in a way that flattered and accentuated both. I could go on for quite some time here, but will instead advise you to pick up a copy of The Irony of American History and draw your own conclusions. Soon afterward, I was presented with an article from Liam Julien about President Obama's affinity for Niebuhr, which I was to write a 600 word reflection on. Not even the START of being enough to hit everything in that article. I had to forego a couple more complex reactions for the sake of brevity, but one of these discarded topics is a source of constant concern to me, and I think it bears discussion.

*DISCLAIMER: I think Julien's clear bias against Obama interferes with his ability to successfully analyze the situation. It doesn't make his article useless, but I think it makes it weaker. I find that there's a huge problem with commentators voicing dissent with the implication that all liberals/progressives developed their views after some kind of concussion-based accident. To think that anyone who has achieved national office without considering and then shaping their views through serious thought is simply ignorant.*

In the opening paragraphs of Julien's article, he appears to take issue with Obama's declaring certain Republican ideas "dumb." Despite this criticism, Julien later quotes some editorialists in defense of his argument that Obama doesn't quite "get" Niebuhr as calling a certain type of pacifism "dumb" (To be fair, that brand of pacifism is kind of dumb). This might seem like pretty standard juvenile language choice, but I find real cause for concern here. Shouldn't our level of discourse be just a sconch higher than one might find on an elementary school playground? As we have seen since the American Founding, our own domestic policy is immensely difficult to parse out, much less decisions about how to form and enact our foreign policy. Can we ever hope to achieve either objective if our vocabulary is reduced to calling things "dumb"?

As I mentioned before, I have a huge problem with anyone hoping to offer up some objective commentary on the state of American politics assuming that any kind of political philosophy was developed during some kind of Hunter S. Thompson adventure. Even the wackiest political opinions that make it to the national level are well-considered...perhaps not based on good information, perhaps not in accord with one's own logic, but considered. The difference in approach is manifested in the level of respect afforded to one's political opponents. If you begin a conversation with the presumption that your co-conversant is an idiot, your conversation is over. It's as simple as that. You can disagree, you can talk for years without being convinced, but if you do not appreciate that these ideas don't come from thin air, respect is abandoned and so is the possibility for productive discussion. Kim Jong Il is clearly a nut - we could all riff on this theme for ages - but that doesn't negate the fact that a) he believes what he says, b) he's heavily armed and c) he has transformed the Korean state into his own political tool. We can think he's nuts all we want, but if we can't understand these basic realities, we cannot hope to get him to knock it off with the nukes already.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I worry that diplomacy is dying. One of my biggest complaints with the Iraqi War is not necessarily that we went at all, but rather that the Bush Administration repeatedly said they'd tried that whole diplomacy thing and it didn't work, when in fact the diplomatic offices of the Executive were largely limited in their engagement. Please note - I don't think that diplomacy would have worked with Saddam Hussein, no matter how long we tried. But to SAY that you have been working your diplomatic fingers to the bone when diplomatic measures were abandoned or limited early on tells the world something important about your foreign policy, particularly in the context of the Iraqi War. In this case, it says "we're going to ask you a couple times to do what we say, and then if you don't do it, we're just going to smash you. No negotiation." You might agree that smashing was necessary, but the problem is that it's not just our allies who receive these tacit messages - our enemies do as well, and they may take it as a hint to dispense with formalities and just go with a preemptive strike if negotiation is off the table. There is more nuance and care required for successful diplomacy, and I fear that the patience and consideration required for it is slowly dying off as the business culture increasingly influences our political culture.

Now, one person who has and had this stuff on lockdown is Henry Kissinger. (Side note: Kissinger does not appear to have any plans to die, which I enjoy immensely. I think he has the Philosopher's Stone.) First of all, his book is beautifully written - it's a beast and quite possibly gave me carpal tunnel, but may I say? Worth it. - and that alone sheds light on one of the sources of his success. He is incredibly eloquent. You would be hard pressed to find someone with more diplomatic experience than Kissinger, but the real key is his clear study of history and politics, which ranges far beyond his own personal involvement. This is how true diplomacy should be, if we are to resolve the greatest issues of our time - studied, informed and well-considered. Kissinger takes you through Rooseveltian and Wilsonian world views all the way to the Cold War, but this is also much, much more than a history book. Kissinger manages to make political theory not only understandable, but vibrant and relevant. I have heard so many people complain that political theory is too obtuse and that it's outdated and irrelevant, but Kissinger illustrates brilliantly the many ways in which the politics of yesterday continue to influence and shape our political life.

I know it's 800+ pages, I know you think you don't really care that much about history, or diplomacy, EW, but I really encourage you to do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this (carefully). I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

836 pages

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Nouveau Riche

I always thought of the term "nouveau riche" as a vaguely snotty concept employed by ladies who wore a lot of pleated skirts and pearls to refer to those who made their money and spent it on fairly conspicuous consumption. Luckily, the grand tradition of living in society gives us the eternal gift of neighbors, and neighbors are nothing if not constant sources of learning and amazement.

There are some people who live near-ish to Rich's parents who knocked down an extremely old and venerable smallish house to build not one, but two hideous McMansionesque heaps of rock. This would be offensive enough, had they not then decided to top off this extravaganza with lawn decor that could not be more representative of the most garish manifestation of the "nouveau riche" concept if it had neon signs attached to it announcing its price tag. Let me illuminate for you the glory of this masterpiece.
This is a fountain of some sort that represents one of two pieces of pseudo-Asian influence. It's got that kind of Japanese zen fountain thing going on...but accented with some kind of white lump of rock that makes no sense and looks bizarre. There is also a heron sculpture next to it. Remarkably, this is an improvement...it replaced a topiary of either an elephant or a poodle (jury's still out), which Rich brilliantly described as having been "so ugly it killed itself."
This is the Buddha statue upon whose belly the street number is displayed. The hitching post is presumably for tethering the Hummer I'm sure I didn't need to tell you they drive.
On the left hand side of the yard, these two pieces of magic are waiting for you. No yard is complete without a waving American flag carved in granite and the Anheuser-Busch eagle. I suspect it's actually meant to represent one of the armed forces, but frankly, this looks like a Bud Light kind of house, you know?
You pass those tiny pieces of stony delight on your way to house number two, which is not quite as hideous as house number one, but does have the distinct advantage of having a granite Mickey and Minnie Mouse in the front yard. Those are the things on the right...to the left is what I have to assume is a plastic object made to LOOK like stone, because it's a water wheel that turns. Luckily, they had the foresight to install an additional hitching post for when the first house's inhabitants visit.

I was not able to get a picture of the larger-than-life-size mannequin of abject horror that stands guard on the porch of house number one...it's a woman in a black gown, and I have no idea what the hell it's about.

I must learn to operate the zoom on my phone.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #27: Gladiator: A True Story of Roids, Rage and Redemption by Dan Clark a.k.a. Nitro

As readers of this blog probably know, Rich and I are constantly in the running for Classiest Household In America, which - obviously - is why we watch American Gladiators. The new version lacks some of the grit that the original had and adds the generally repulsive Hulk Hogan and the wooden Laila Ali, who I think probably should have been made one of the Gladiators and kept far, far away from the microphone. American Gladiators is more Rich's time frame than mine, but I am familiar with the original. The current show's Gladiators seem more scripted than their predecessors and tend to follow certain characters that seem assigned rather than organically realized. Even in old YouTubed clips, the old Gladiators are less polished but more amusingly off-the-cuff in their comments, and I think it makes for a more entertaining show.

Gladiator: A True Story of 'Roids, Rage and Redemption is a far more important book than the reasons for which most will buy it. There's been a lot of talk about steroids in the past couple years, from Barry Bonds to Roger Clemens and all the people and drugs in between. The discussion usually centers around whether or not steroids give the taker a competitive advantage, but it's fairly unusual for the matter to be addressed as a public safety issue. Clark, who played the popular character of Nitro on the original Gladiators series, is startlingly open about his experiences with steroids in this book and I believe that in sharing his story in an entertaining portrait of a fairly glamorous life, he's doing a hell of a lot of good in the fight against misinformed medication.

Dan Clark had a hell of a childhood. It left him always trying to meet this absolutely Herculean concept of achievement and pushing himself to the limit. Interestingly, he comes off as a pretty smart guy, though he gives the impression throughout the book he has little to offer but brawn. He pushes himself to succeed in athletic arenas...first in football and then branching into playing big guys on film and finally landing on American Gladiators. In his constant quest to get stronger and bigger, he turns to steroids, more or less because all of the best competitors around him are on them. It's simply what you do to get ahead.

I really appreciate his willingness to be so unflinching in his descriptions of the effects of the drugs he's taking...and boy, he took a LOT of shit. You name it, he swallowed it, shot it, whatever. And eventually, his body went to hell. His hamstring basically disintegrated, his sex life was a nightmare, he had flareups of roid rage, he almost got shot in Mexico while smuggling his 'roids over the border...what a wreck. But more importantly, he shows you the addictive effects of the drugs. Clark tried repeatedly to get off the steroids for good and each time it was physically and emotionally traumatic, often to the point of bringing around a relapse. His ambition made it easy for him to talk himself into just one more cycle, over and over again, before he finally kicked the habit for good.

I personally feel that -in a vacuum - if people are willing to take the informed risk of steroids in order to succeed on the field, that's their right, just as getting the best trainers and equipment is their right. However, before we can sign off on that philosophy, sports authorities need to decide how they feel about it and stick to it. If you want to outlaw it, do it - I can understand the rationale - but then you have to actually enforce it...test people randomly and frequently, keep your ear to the ground to catch the suppliers, actually get serious about what is and isn't allowed and keep up on the latest and greatest evolutions in the drugs. What we have now is massively unhealthy. Maybe kids shouldn't idolize athletes in the way that they often do, but the fact of the matter is that millions of kids want to be just like their athletic heroes and right now it's understood that many of these heroes use steroids to succeed because "that's just what you do." Steriods will fuck your body up. They'll amp your muscles until your skeletal structure can't handle it and you're ripping tendon off your bone. They'll screw with your hormones to a degree usually seen outside of sex change operations. They'll absolutely annihilate your liver and a variety of other organs. Perhaps worst of all, as Clark's book shows us, they will suck you in just like any other addictive drug. If we're going to allow the use of steroids, you need to put this information out there so people understand that it's not just a consequence-free choice...it's one with significant risks attached.

Clark's book is a good read...it's quick, but not poorly written. It's a clearer description than you usually find of the true effects of steroids, both negative and positive. Clark now makes a business of touring around on steroid education programs, and he's crafted a good book here if you have a kid in your life who you think might consider steroids or is trying them. It gives a pretty complete picture of what they can do for you and what they can't, and what consequences go along with them. Moreover, Clark's various careers are pretty fascinating...he's done a lot of stuff and been a lot of places (who knew American football was big in pockets of Italy?), and he's got a good sense of humor about his many foibles. Great beach reading, just for something quick.

256 pages

Sunday, April 12, 2009

High Church

Last night, I sang the Easter Vigil with the Assumption Festival Choir, and this year's service was particularly significant because it was presided over by Cardinal Francis Arinze, who is a very interesting man with whom I disagree on several issues. It seemed like a no-brainer to join the Festival Choir for this event because not only was the music absolutely gorgeous, but when a Cardinal comes to your school, I think you go to see them. Regardless of my personal religious beliefs, I have great respect for anyone who has dedicated their life to the study of theology and ultimately to faith. Doing so denotes a certain selflessness, because the person must make a concious decision to spend their life defending and explaining a discipline that cannot offer much in the way of physical, unquestionable proof and is eternally under fire. Since we cannot shake hands with God, the last step in religious study will always be a leap of faith, and I think to dedicate your life to defending something that relies on that faith takes some pretty serious balls.

In any case, the Chapel looked gorgeous; the Brother who handles the decor really works with the simple lines of the Chapel at all times, but he really outdid himself for this service. It was all beautiful spring flowers (glory hallelujah, spring might actually be here for real!) and draped fabric. The effect was really powerful, though I would have limited all the fabric to one color. The service was really well suited to reflection upon the spirit of the season - renewal, rebirth, Jesus, etc. I think that even non-Catholics can likely get behind the spirit of Lent and Easter, if you take the Jesus bits out of it...they're dedicated first to improving yourself and then to moving forward anew. I like that Catholicism does emphasize those areas, and at least at Assumption, it was encouraged outside of the pretext of crushing guilt excessive focus on sin. It doesn't get left wholly out of the equation, but it's not as dominant as it seems to be in other congregations.

The service was...epic. As we know, I am not Catholic, so "Easter Vigil" does not trigger any kinds of warnings about schedule-clearing or footwear advice. I had planned to meet Rich and our friend Joanne downtown afterwards, assuming I would get out at about the same time as the hockey game. Apparently as Rich and Joanne waited for my fool self after the game, the following conversation took place:

Joanne: Wait, did she say what this was?
Rich: No, some church thing, I never know what she's doing.
J: But are there going to be candles?
R: I...have no idea?
J: Oh my God. If it's the thing with the candles, it's gonna be two and a half hours.

It was two and a half hours.

It went really well...the sound was simply amazing and the service was beautifully planned. Needless to say, I don't get a whole lot of high church in my life, so it was really fascinating to see the formal whickety-whack and ceremony with the Cardinal presiding. Cardinal Arinze stopped at the end of the Vigil to say that he was very impressed with the spirit of prayerfulness in the Vigil. He also mentioned the choir specifically - he said he'd heard before coming to Assumption that we sang really well and that now having heard us, he had to agree. Pretty high praise when you figure the guy's home office is the Vatican and he probably hears a lot of really high caliber choirs.

The one thing that took away slightly from the experience for me personally was a section of the Cardinal's homily where he was talking about the Nicene Creed and the parts of it. He pointed out that Catholics declare their belief in "the Catholic Church...the true church...the church that Jesus founded, and gave to Peter, that has been around for 2000 years, not some church that was made up yesterday." Now, of course Catholics pledge this - it's their Church, and they should believe in it to that depth - but it seemed a little unnecessary to throw in the "not some church that was made up yesterday" phrase. It's inherent in the first part of the passage, restating it just makes it more aggressive than need be. I don't begrudge him the view, and obviously I'm more sensitive to it.

I joined Chapel Choir with some concerns over how I would be recieved as a Protestant - particularly one of a stripe that not too many people know about - and since joining I have felt one hundred percent welcome and accepted in the Assumption College Chapel. I was just kind of disappointed in that one dull spot of the Easter Vigil, because it marked the first and only time I've ever felt even the tiniest bit unwelcome in the community, and it came at a true high point in my musical life. I will note that I walked out of the church and shook hands with all the priests who I have gotten to know and they were exactly as warm and friendly as they always are, and that salvaged that brief dip in good feeling. Assumption really has something special.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Belated Professorial Excellence

Here are some of the gems from this semester thus far (now that it's almost over)...enjoy!

"Do you think anyone's gonna be listening to...Snoop Dogg in 400 years? I DO NOT."

"I know you go to bed at night thinking 'I really miss the Austro-Hungarian Empire.'"

"Why did the four great empires break up? Did they just get together and say, 'Let's break up! I don't wanna go out with you anymore'?"

"Now, why did Hugo Chavez get arrested? *extended silence* Did he get arrested for smoking a bong with Michael Phelps?"

"Vrabel, right? You know how I remembered? I put an accent over the A." [NB: We're in Patriots country here.]

"Do we all know where Zimbabwe is? It's the former Southern Rhodesia." [I don't think this actually explained anything to the class.]

"And these people say, 'I'm a card carrying libertarian!'...well, I pray for you."

"I think the College should be banned from holding events until they fix the parking situation. I drove around for 22 minutes and had a confrontation with the ticket Nazi. I was told to park on the upper deck...which was full. So finally I just parked in a handicap space."

"We are a commonwealth, in Massachusetts. That means 'an open invitation to take our money.'"

"We all know the Juice was guilty of murder."

"They used to call it 15 minutes of fame, but now I think it's like 17 seconds of fame. Like the OCTOMOM! What a weirdo."

"That's the French cedilla, also known as the whodickey." [NB: It was a circonflex.]

"What are we all doing this weekend? Going out to Leitrim's? Well, not Josie. You're too old for Leitrim's."

"I am an enemy of the anti-smoking fascism."

"I don't get the rap thing, by the way. I'm waiting for it to pass."

"Remember, the Northerners were not the peace loving foreign aid dispensers that they are today who are into porn, like the Swedes today."

"I'm probably breaking all the copyright laws, but petty tyrannical laws are meant to be broken."

"Escorted by the police...only way to travel, baby."

"[John's] from Webster, he can't afford to be nice."

"Where was I? Oh yeah. Sim City, fear of computers, the polis."

"It's like...Huffington?"
"Ariana Huffington?"
"No, the guy who died at Harvard."
"...Sam Huntington?"
"Yeah!" [NB: Not even a little the same.]

"I'm not supposed to do this anymore...I'm not supposed to call myself an asshole anymore."

"I don't think happiness and Connecticut...I don't think they go together."

"Kennedy understood - prostitutes are better."

"What's this, the cooties lane?"

"Say hello to your neighbors, say hello to Dominic, say hello to Nick's hat."

"In fact, I was reading Roosevelt's letters last night...yeah, I have an exciting life."

"Paul Giamatti was a perfect cranky, ugly Adams."

"Anyway, there's plenty of them...I just pick on Chomsky and Zinn because I hate them."

"Can you imagine Christ talking about the Hour of Power? Material power...political power...psychological power...Viagara power..."

"How come there's no light on this side of class? Is it a metaphor for your mental state?"

"He's the one who looks like an adjunct for the B-52s."

"Larry King, he of the 7 wives? He's in the Mickey Rooney club. You know, Mickey Rooney...short, ugly actor, had 7 wives? He was in the Elizabeth Taylor club."

"Joseph Davies deserves to be shot. Even though he's dead."

"So Kennan says 'take a bath, stop smoking pot, don't act like a jerk'...and all of a sudden we're on the way to the death camps?"

"What does that say?"
"N'ism? Nationalism. *pause* My n'isms!"
"...is it still Add/Drop?"

"You want an octopus sandwich, you just ask for an octopus sandwich. What, you think they're gonna say, 'Sorry, Mr. President, we don't have any octopus'? No! They're gonna say, 'Shit, we gotta get an octopus in here!'"

"Canada...yay, Canada! Mexico. Oh, Mexico."

"What, you're kidding, 'my car can't get to 90.' I'm a professor. My car gets to 30 and then craps out."

"I am convinced that we need a submajor here...Death Studies, because seems to be what I teach. Political Mass Murder, Peace and War, Terrorism, Nationalism and Fascism..."

"Do you go out to the bar and say 'I have a natural desire to leave behind a faithful reproduction of myself...may I buy you a drink?'"

"Some news station was reporting at Elm Park in Worcester, and people started calling me because they knew I lived there. I thought about going down to throw snowballs at her, you know...get on TV. You'll see me being chased by the Worcester Police Department. Brilliant Prof. D, running from the authorities..."

"Those Mormons are gonna get mad. More than get mad, they're gonna get you hooked on crank!"

"Come join my majority faction!"

"Yeah, but what about that guy? You know? Starts with an 'A,' ends with a 'dolf Hitler'?"