Category Archives: world affairs

When you sound more ironic than you probably intended

The Trump administration has quickly established itself as one that denies objective reality, proudly creates “alternative facts,” and even lies about what we’ve all plainly seen in front of our own eyes.

That’s why statements like this about the Holocaust — the administration broke with tradition by failing to even reference Jews or anti-Semitism on Holocaust Remembrance Day — cut a little too close to, well, their reality:

“If we could wipe [the Holocaust] off of the history books, we would. But we can’t.”

I bet you would, Reince Preibus. I bet you would.


Isn’t she lovely?

Rough weekend in the Cult of Palin. But this being the 2000-oughts, it probably doesn’t matter. She’s “one of us” and she can [insert down-home cliche here].

Time for link-collecting, so I can look back on these strange days …

There was the pretty hilarious, dead-on Tina Fey return to SNL to impersonate her, condensing into a few minutes of parody the most alarming parts of her candidacy. Sadly, that will probably me more significant for opinion-shaping than anything written anywhere.

And the rest of her interview with Charles Gibson was released — her first non-scripted, non-staged public comments, which is rather undemocratic of a public official … but then Bush has spent most of his presidency not answering questions, so perhaps indignant indifference is the new face of public service. She came off as a skilled politician, but not so strong in the “I know what’s at stake” category. (e.g. Russians are “our next-door neighbors. And you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska. From an island in Alaska.” Cool! Vote her ass in!)

After a week of digging and talking to Alaskan colleagues and opponents, three Times reporters dug up a severely damning picture: Palin The Reformer looks like, well, any ol’ Machiavellian crony-coddler:

An examination of her swift rise and record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics … contrasts with her carefully crafted public image.

Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials.

The story also reveals that she, like a good modern-era Republican, appears to believe her correspondence as a public official is her business, not the public’s. We might ask her, but she wouldn’t answer questions for the story. That’s a good democracy. Which crony she picks and why is not of our concern, dude.

In the preaching-to-the-choir category, every non-conservative NYT op/ed writer took their turn sharing their bewilderment:

Herbert: “Palin’s problem is not that she was mayor of a small town or has only been in the Alaska governor’s office a short while. Her problem (and now ours) is that she is not well versed on the critical matters confronting the country at one of the most crucial turning points in its history.”

Frank Rich, on why it doesn’t seem to matter whether she’s well versed on silly things like issues and policies that might keep Rome from declining: “The specifics have changed in our new century, but the vitriolic animus of right-wing populism preached by Pegler and McCarthy and revived by the 1990s culture wars remains the same. The game is always to pit the good, patriotic real Americans against those subversive, probably gay ‘cosmopolitan’ urbanites (as the sometime cross-dresser Rudy Giuliani has it) who threaten to take away everything that small-town folk hold dear.”

The most salient, boots-shaking passage for me was from Maureen Dowd: “The really scary part of the Palin interview was how much she seemed like W. in 2000, and not just the way she pronounced nu-cue-lar. She had the same flimsy but tenacious adeptness at saying nothing, the same generalities and platitudes, the same restrained resentment at being pressed to be specific, as though specific is the province of silly eggheads, not people who clear brush at the ranch or shoot moose on the tundra.”

Yes, that’s what shook my faith in 2000! It’s that “resentment at being pressed to be specific” that turns my stomach and sends shivers through my bones.

On Friday, Krugman showed exhausted disgust at the whole thing: “Why do the McCain people think they can get away with this stuff? Well, they’re probably counting on the common practice in the news media of being ‘balanced’ at all costs. You know how it goes: If a politician says that black is white, the news report doesn’t say that he’s wrong, it reports that ‘some Democrats say’ that he’s wrong. Or a grotesque lie from one side is paired with a trivial misstatement from the other, conveying the impression that both sides are equally dirty.”

And Friedman, on the sheer idiocy and insincerity of McCain & company’s “drill, baby, drill!”:
“Why would Republicans, the party of business, want to focus our country on breathing life into a 19th-century technology — fossil fuels — rather than giving birth to a 21st-century technology — renewable energy? As I have argued before, it reminds me of someone who, on the eve of the I.T. revolution — on the eve of PCs and the Internet — is pounding the table for America to make more I.B.M. typewriters and carbon paper. ‘Typewriters, baby, typewriters.'”

Um, probably because they will die in the next 20-30 years and don’t give a shit about the Earth beyond, as long as their retirement is well funded and golf courses hydrated? That’s my guess.

Well, at least we’ll reap what we sow. That should make good god*-fearing folk happy.

*Must be singular “god.” Multiple gods-fearers need not apply.

The world ends tomorrow

On our ski trip last spring, one guy arrived to the lodge late in the evening because he’s a physicist who was flying back from CERN in Geneva (The ski trip with this crew is an epic trip, well worth the burden of travel and rearranging itineraries). CERN is where they’ve been building a rather pricey, rather lengthy, rather finely tuned piece of machinery to crash subatomic particles together in the hope of revealing still smaller subatomic particles.

When he showed up, the rest of us well into the evening’s post-slope recovery, I took a little too much drunken delight in mockingly accusing him of trying to swallow Earth in a man-made black hole.

That amusing conspiracy theory/uninformed fear, and all of its tinfoil-headed adherents (just peruse the comments section of any news link), officially takes flight tomorrow, when they finally turn CERN’s new super-duper-fradgelistic-collider on.

But in case the physicists are wrong, and the paranoid are right (we’re watching you, so we already know), be warned: The world ends tomorrow.

So when you wake up, before you bother going into work, be sure and check the Internet to see if there’s still a world to work in. And if you should wake up in a parallel universe, be sure and plant a flag there to claim it for America. Country First, and all.

40 Years after Prague Spring

When I woke this morning, I found my mind occupied by my alarm clock, which told me: “When Czechoslovakians woke on Aug. 21, 1968, they found their country occupied by 500,000 Warsaw Pact troops.”

It was 40 years ago today that Soviet tanks invaded, forcibly ending a period of internal reforms known as Prague Spring. The mild reforms that the communists within then-Czechoslovakia had tried — and the central party in Moscow decided to crush — were such grave threats to Mother Russia as: allowing people to play Western music; to form sports and women’s groups; to be Boy Scouts; to show a pulse of creativity in a dour Orwellian landscape.

Funny to think about this anniversary with Mother Russia rattling its sword in Georgia today. Another year, another round of deaths to protect its sphere of influence. History repeats.

NPR’s feature about 1968 today is really good. I hear my dad’s voice in the audio clips of the Czech intellectuals they interviewed. NPR also has a good companion piece online about that era, which gets into the between-war period of Czechoslovak democracy and why the Soviet imposition of their bastardized form of pseudo-communism never sat well with the Czechs, who were historically a creative people with a healthy intellectual scene at the crossroads of Central Europe.

My father was one of the ones forced out (well, it was escape or die) way back in 1948, when the Soviets first said, “We’re here!” Which is lucky for him, because the imprisoned friends he left behind had to live through hell and then the hope and heartbreak of 1968. That year, he was expecting his third child here in the U.S. Heh, maybe my brother owes his conception to a particularly hopeful 1968 spring.

The NPR story points out that, while the invasion and subsequent “normalization” brutally crushed hopes in Czechoslovakia, it may have had the benefit of permanently undermining the idea of an international communist (Soviet-bastardized style) movement: Other, “true” communists were appalled by the Soviet action, which was hardly an example of how to treat your movement “brothers.”

So it would be two more decades before the Soviet era finally ended in 1989, after my father had given up hoping he would ever live to see it. Sometimes I forget how dramatically, incredibly things changed after that. My father went from thinking he’d never see his home again, to visiting it each summer and ultimately moving back.

Reading and listening to the NPR stories, it strikes me how much music is intertwined with those hopes and times, and how its control is representative of the way regimes like that just destroy the human spirit. It was the same way for my dad in the 1940s, when he fell in love with swing music and all these Western jazz musicians (which the Soviets quickly made illegal).

For example, this would have been my dad, if he hadn’t escaped:

One man who was a foreign correspondent based in Prague [that spring] told me this anecdote illustrating how he understood something important was happening in Czechoslovak society:

While he was sitting at a café on the bank of the Vltava River, a few days after the 1967 Writers’ Congress, an elderly man wearing a chef’s hat and white uniform emerged from the basement kitchen. The cook confidently strode across the terrace, sat down at a piano and began to play and sing Cikanko ty krasna (Oh, My Beautiful Gypsy), a song from his youth, which at the time was still banned as bourgeois deviationism.

A doctor by training and a member of the social elite, he had been relegated to the margins of society and was forced to take menial jobs when the Communists took over in Czechoslovakia in 1948. Twenty years later, with the new ferment in society, the foreign correspondent told me, the doctor-turned-cook felt he could publicly reclaim his identity.

Life don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.

The world amuses and baffles

Things that strike me, of no relation to one another:

‘Is This Russia?’
What a strange mix of capitalism, feudal resignation, and Communist paranoia Putin’s Russia is:

“Even the Communist Party, the only remaining opposition party in Parliament, has said that its leaders are kept off TV.

And it is not just politicians. Televizor, a rock group whose name means TV set, had its booking on a St. Petersburg station canceled in April, after its members took part in an Other Russia demonstration.

When some actors cracked a few mild jokes about Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev at Russia’s equivalent of the Academy Awards in March, they were expunged from the telecast.”

A bit over the top, no?

Happy Curmudgeon
I recognize that I am increasingly out of touch when it comes to the time-consuming energies of our chat, message board, and flaming Internet world. The silly things that get people riled up like talk-radio callers.

But usually when I peak through the crack in the door, it only affirms my status. Of this list of the “Web’s 10 Most Hated People” — people that incite message board and blog-comment ire — I’ve heard of only two of them. And one of them, I wouldn’t have heard of if her scandal hadn’t been local (apparently it made national news, because the media loves White Girl Dies/Kidnapped scandals). For the most part, all that anonymous Internet anger … over what?

American Idol, Bradifferlina’s new drama, which Nascar drivers hate each other — of these things it’s usually comforting not to know.

A Different Kind of Drama
Meanwhile — like your addicted friend who seems beyond help — the universe is tearing itself apart at an ever-increasing rate, and we’ve still no idea why. We’re more likely to be extinct before it becomes an issue, of course. But scientists would sleep a little better if they had more of an inkling.

How daunting would it be to feel fairly certain there are multiple universes — when we don’t even know how to contact other life forms within our own galaxy?

Maybe the new multi-billion-dollar particle accelerator in Geneva will unveil clues to mysterious dark matter (and the stench of hockey equipment) … and maybe it won’t.

‘Is this Russia?’

Poor Catholic caddy Danny Noonan walks the course with aloof, generally high, underachiever and wealthy golfer Ty Webb (Chevy Chase):

Danny: “I gotta go to college, I gotta.”
Ty Webb: “Oh, you don’t have to go to college. This isn’t Russia … Is this Russia? This isn’t Russia.”

Man, I remember the heady, post-Iron Curtain early ’90s when it seemed — incredibly enough — that Russia would finally, truly join the West with a functioning democracy. When I thought some day the “Is this Russia?” joke would no longer resonate.

But it does — or it should — still resonate, because good ol’ Putin’s machine is arresting dissidents, keeping a stranglehold on power, and essentially telling people who to vote for in Russia’s “free” elections. And if the occasional critical journalist is found murdered? Well, these things happen. Putin, the guy who W. Bush “got a sense of his soul” by “looking the man in the eye” (say, that pickup line only worked for me once, and she was on the rebound). That guy.

Looking Westward
High school history tells us that beginning with Peter the Great, for much of the last 300 years (we may omit that wee Soviet era), Russia has “looked Westward,” trying to be more like Europe with modernized institutions and customs like Europeans.

But Russia is a vast, bizarre landscape. It retained serf labor long after that disappeared from Western Europe (of course, the kettle shall retort to the pot that Russian serfdom ended around the time the U.S. was fighting itself over the right to own slaves). And Peter’s reforms deepened a cultural rift pitting Western-looking elites against the vast “masses” (Euros would call them “backward”), which carried on through the last czar. A rift that opened the way for revolution and a positive reception to Soviet Communist ideals.

Of course Soviet “Communism” proved miserable and merely replaced one elite ruling class with another. And when the ’90s economic transition from Soviet-ism to capitalism did not go as smoothly as scripted, the setting was ripe for old Kremlinite Putin to take over and steadily increase his grip on politics, media, oil and who knows what sections of the mafia.

So vast, sprawling Russia still has this obstacle. Democracy is a looong work in progress that will evolve into its own uniquely Russian form. In the meantime, Putin’s ways make sure it is in many ways still Dostoevsky’s Russia. Still Gogol’s “Dead Souls” Russia.

Except with the Internet, and rock music, and immense underground black gold waiting to be tapped.

They’re no Turks
But it’s funny: in my graduate research I’m looking at Turkey’s case for joining the EU. It’s favored by some because it could be a bridge to the Middle East for Europe, and its young, growing economy could be a booster shot for the aging welfare states of Europe in the long run. It’s opposed by others as “not part of Europe” (only a sliver of it is in geographic Europe), or an unwelcome Muslim democracy to the EU’s “Christian club,” or just a tide of immigrants waiting to happen.

But one of the conditions for EU membership is the health of your democracy, and Turkey — like other recent, Eastern European members — needs to continue reforms if it wants to get in.

As with Russia’s historic Westward movements, it’s Turkey’s elites and military who are leading the EU charge. It could happen. But in that context, you look at Putin’s Russia and — not that Russia is interested — its democracy would never qualify for EU membership the way it currently functions.

I dunno. I just wonder which state will look healthier 30 years from now. And I don’t shower much.

Dam Chinese

While it wasn’t exactly joyous spending an hour of every waking day of my high school life in Chinese class, there were some silver linings.

Catch phrases in my teacher’s accent — such as “END of discussion!” and “Why is it so? I tell you…” — are permanently burned into my brain to a degree future archaeologists would be able to retrieve them from my dust if so inclined.

Such phrases are haunting but worth a laugh. Still today I’m tempted to cut off unproductive work conversations with a Chinese-accented shout of “END of discussion!” before I remind myself that’s not cool.

Three Gorges – dammed.

My teacher was a native of democratic Taiwan and a vocal critic of the Party ruling mainland China. One thing she railed about to us was this fabled Three Gorges Dam that was (at the time) likely to be built. I remember her saying it would remove a million people from their homes, dam up the naturally beautiful Three Gorges area, and create who knows what kind of problems.

It almost sounded like fantasy, this grand project, and it was hard to visualize. Not like photos of the affected areas were exactly forthcoming.

She said the consequences were unknown because the project was unprecedented on Earth, and the Party wanted to get it done not just for hydro power but also to show it could be done in that uniquely Communist “look what the Great People’s Party can accomplish” kind of way.

Well, they celebrated its completion last year and framed it as a source of renewable power, but of course it kicked 1.3 million people out of their ancestral homes first. In a remarkably frank step, Party officials also now concede they’re worried about water pollution, landslides and geological instability in the area, and they may want to displace 300,000 or more new people. Similar though smaller-scale dam projects continue each day, initiating concerns about depletion of the groundwater supply.

Wooh, it’s a unique place that can eminent domain a million people out of their homes. I hereby raise a glass to democracy!

But China is in a conundrum, because they’re facing the suffocating air of their coal-fueled booming economy, and hydro power looks like one way to try to slow that pollution down. (For a marketing brochure recently, we were looking for decent photos of Shanghai, but all the photos had hauntingly polluted skies. Any photos with a bluer sky?, we asked. “There are no blue skies in Shanghai” was the answer).

But it’s such a wild card of unknowns when you’re shaping the Earth on this unimaginable scale:

“The worst situation would be a major earthquake induced by pressure from the rising water — a possibility that officials have long discounted. Heavy silt accumulation, if seemingly less alarming, could also pose severe problems upstream as it gradually builds up the floor of the reservoir.

Silt accumulation has steadily reduced the capacity of other Chinese dams to store water, which has also reduced electrical generation. Planners of the Three Gorges Dam estimated that sedimentation could become a problem upstream in the city of Chongqing within 20 years.

But Mr. Fan and other scientists say sedimentation is already happening at a rate that could create flooding and shipping problems in Chongqing much sooner than expected.”

It’s built, so only time will tell. But I’m feeling alright about not having 1.3 billion other countrymen right about now.

A non-conservative reactionary visits

One of the priceless things about working at a university — other than watching youth trends evolve right under your nose — is the endless stream of visiting speakers, cool indie films and other forums happening on campus. All the better when they’re on your lunch break.

We have an upcoming visit from historian John Lukacs, a self-professed “reactionary” who is disenchanted with the last 40+ years of the conservative movement. The guy reminds me a bit of my father: intriguing, sometimes brilliant insight into history mixed with bizarre doses of unwavering ideology.
This “anti-populist” bemoans the populism, hatred and nationalism of conservative movement politics while also holding the Roman Catholic Church as a bastion of what is good and right about Western Civilization.

He rips the lazy intellect and empty symbolism of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and mourns how “conservatism” has become focused on anti-liberalism rather than goals in its own right:

“Today’s politicians of the right, Lukacs writes, have abandoned the conservative values of stability, order, and tradition and instead learned to bind nationalist majorities together by evoking hatred, directed not just against foreign foes but against fellow citizens who are seen as insufficiently patriotic.”

On patriotism, he has an interesting personal experience, since he deserted the Hungarian army when it was drafted into German alliance during WWII.

He says liberalism is an outdated movement that accomplished its worthy goals (essentially, equal rights and free speech), while the new “enemies” arethe (outdated) idea of Progress, together with the (thoughtless) belief in Technology.”

Oh, and mass populism, which he says is eroding democracy.

The professors who will likely disagree with some of his stances are nonetheless excited to have him on campus. Like talking with my father, it should be fun even when he starts to sound crazy (“Oh, about that wonderful Church …”). It’s great to hear people who — even if they fail to recognize ambiguity in this world — at least avoid blind fealty to a Party line.

I don’t pretend to comprehend (Okay, I do pretend, but I recognize that I can’t) how the world works and know how to achieve peace and happiness for all, but it’s fun to keep trying. And interesting to hear a different view from someone who isn’t trolling for votes or business lobby concessions.

What’s a Belgian?

Belgium has gone three months since its last election without successfully “creating a government” — I love Parliamentary speak — owing partly to the traditional Flemish-French/Wallonia divide. This has led, according to a journalist’s pet “trend” story in the NYT, “to a flood of warnings, predictions, even promises that the country is about to disappear.”

When Czechoslovakia peacefully split in 1992 (with a population about 50% greater than present-day Belgium), one rationale my father cited was that the Slovakians wanted a historic period of independence before European integration absorbed all national identities and made “Slovakians” a footnote of history. Now they’ve got their own place on the map, they’re in the history books for good, without the Czecho- attached. Which should be good for something. Blessed are the cheesemakers, and all.

But that was post-Iron Curtain and before the Czechs and Slovaks joined the EU. For Belgium — an original member of the EC/ECC/EU — to split itself now, 15+ years further into European integration and the development of the Eurozone, could create much more interesting problems, not to mention create fear of a “domino” effect for other separatist movements in Europe.

Or would it? In International Relations theory, an aspirant “supranational” organization like the EU aims to boost the collective economic and social good while making national borders less important — so should it really matter? Carried to its utopian conclusion, such supranationalism eventually leads to growing world cooperation and peace (save the little matter of local violence fueled by poverty and low-education … that one’s still a doozy).

Of course, also along the way to this conclusion is the great, kicking-and-screaming anger and resentment of peoples who fiercely hold their national identity dearest to their heart. If I recall, this feeling may have caused a resource-wasting war or two in humankind’s past. Creating economic ties is a nice way to prevent that before it gets silly.

Not knowing any details, my money is still on Belgium remaining nice and whole. The article was at heart a Times trend story, after all. But my fascination with topics like these and their international ramifications is one of the reasons I’m doing the International Relations gig.

Robots on the pitch

The other night, I watched most of the Women’s World Cup match between the U.S. and North Korea. A hard-fought 2-2 draw, slightly marred by very wet conditions and what I thought was at times borderline dirty play.

What a fascinating case the isolated North Koreans team is! It was a minor surprise that they tied the powerhouse U.S. (Unlike in men’s soccer, in the women’s game the U.S. national team has had a head-start over other football nations in training, money, support and decades of societal acceptance of female athletes — who, I might add, are far more … um, “aesthetically pleasing” in their athletic movements than your average malnourished, botoxed cover girl.)

Despite the U.S. team’s traditional dominance, this result wasn’t a major shock because everyone views the North Koreans as a skilled, “dark horse” threat. Yet no one really knows their capabilities because outside of the major periodic FIFA tournaments, North Korea doesn’t play anyone. They don’t talk to the media or let outsiders watch them play/practice except when mandated by FIFA. The outside world sees them play in qualifiers and tourneys maybe every couple years. It’s speculated that they’ve attained their impressive form by playing men’s teams in North Korea. But it’s only speculated because no one knows.

On the pitch, they reveal little emotion except after goals, otherwise appearing to be robotic figurines charging all over with non-stop determination. They all creepily have the exact same “little boy”-ish haircut. It reminds me of the USSR hockey teams that used to dominate international tournaments while noticeably appearing relieved — rather than joyed — after goals and wins, which elicited the not-unfounded impression that a loss meant their immediate banishment to Siberia or something else very very bad.

Given the bizarre closed state that North Korea is, one can only imagine what these girls (yes girls, many of them between 15-20 years old) face if they lose. In the 2006 Asian Cup, when “denied a last-minute equalizer by the Italian referee, goalkeeper Hye Yong Han kicked the official and teammates Son Kyong Sun and Song Jung Sun threw bottles at other officials, as well as the Australian spectators.”

Stories abound about them not answering questions at FIFA-mandated media sessions, about being deceptive about even who their coach is. So secretive are they that it’s to the point where if they were found using a cocktail of drugs, or sneaking a male on their team, you’d hardly be surprised. Which might sound jingoistic, but as far as getting decent information goes, they don’t exactly throw you a bone.

Honestly, since their self-imposed seclusion hardly matches the international “fair play” spirit of FIFA, I wish North Korea were required to be more open before FIFA allowed them to participate. Allowances for “cultural nuances” (if totalitarianism can be called that) is one thing, but at some point you ought to have to dial in to Planet Earth in order to come to the Earthling party.

Mostly, though, I just wonder what’s going through those sheltered players’ heads. And what their Fearless Leader has taught them to believe is going through ours.