Thursday, June 26, 2014

The low-life life

Soccer “mania” seems to have hit America, although how much of it is actually being a “fan” of the sport or just curiosity about the ESPN-generated “excitement” about the World Cup is a matter of opinion. It is certainly not a sport without its “melodramatic” moments on the field—or off. A few people (a very few) might recall when U.S. women’s team goalkeeper Hope Solo made a pouty stink about being substituted in favor of Brianna Scurry during the 2007 women’s World Cup; her behavior no doubt had an effect on the team’s play in a 4-0 loss to Brazil, and her self-involved  postgame whine didn’t help “clarify” her position.

Not surprisingly, Solo has had subsequent bouts of low-life mania, such as getting into a tiff with her “Dancing With the Stars” partner and alienating everyone else; her booting off the show did not come too soon for fellow contestants and assorted observers. The day before she married former Washington Husky football player Jerramy Stevens, they had an “altercation” that led to an arrest but no charges. Because of this and her frequent bouts with foot-in-mouth disease, she opined that “I have a bad rap, People look at me as selfish, outspoken. But I know who I am.”  

What is that? “I don’t expect any of the media to be positive” she disingenuously told CNN, “But I know that I’m doing wonderful things for the sport of soccer, and I know I’m doing amazing things for female athletes.” That apparently is enough to excuse her latest misplay, this time an arrest for (allegedly) assaulting her sister and a teenage nephew while in a drunken state at a family get-together in Kirkland, WA. After receiving a call about “a woman hitting people,” officers at the scene concluded that “Solo was the primary aggressor and had instigated the assault." She was charged with fourth degree domestic violence. She and her lawyer, of course, deny everything.

I have to admit that my only interest in this affair is the fact that it demonstrates that even “success” and “fame” cannot change a person’s basic nature.  When I was growing up, you rarely were confronted with the sordid side of life on television or the news. Sure, there were the sex scandals involving politicians and The National Enquirer, but of the everyday life of common ordinary people, you rarely went beyond the “silly” side of life in a typical sitcom. Occasionally there were movies like Midnight Cowboy that “shocked” viewers; it was even given an “X” rating initially, although that didn’t prevent me as a child from watching it on a super-size screen in a drive-in theater. Its depiction of the sordid world of low-lifes, vagrancy and homelessness was a far cry from the “nobility” of poverty seen in films like Grapes of Wrath. At “worst” there were soap operas, but the usually malicious melodrama they portrayed was from a “genteel” upper class world, the kind that the British comedy troupe Monty Python often skewered. “Common” people and their problems rarely intruded in this social scene, unless to “upset” the balance of the world.

But today, we have “reality” television and small claims court shows—and worse: The amateur “psychologist” shows where the host brings in the dregs of society with a whole slew of “issues” that generally involve conflict over domestic partnership arrangements, domestic disputes, paternity resolution, cheating boyfriends, crazy daughters and others of this ilk. Although it is true that Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey were “pioneers” of this type of programming, they never turned their shows into carnivals of out-of-control behavior (well, except when Tom Cruise jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch like a little boy). That started with the likes of Jerry Springer, who invited people to send in their stories of woe for possible appearances on his show, and the ones most likely to create on-screen mayhem were the ones deemed to be “worthy" of inspiring an equally nauseating "performance" from the audience. I recall that Geraldo Rivera was made the “poster boy” for television bad behavior when his nose was broken by a chair during an altercation on stage between two guests on the extreme side of the racial divide, but this was in regard to a “serious” social issue; all of the current variety exists in the sewers of society that some of us wish to avoid all contact with.

I realize that some otherwise “sensible” people only take a peek at these shows just to have a laugh at just how sad and pathetic people can get. On the other hand, there are viewers who actually either “identify” with these people or otherwise “enjoy” having their political or social stereotypes “confirmed.” It’s just another element of the poor quality of much of television these days, which needs to fill hundreds of network and cable channels with something. With programming out to “outsmart” the next show—particularly “crime” shows that try to “wow” viewers with the latest technology rather than actual thinking—it seems the “dumb” is what really draws in many viewers.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Favre comes out of "retirement" to throw game-winning TD for Cochran

New free agent acquisitions Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Chuck Woolery—former game show host of Wheel of Fortune, Love Connection and Scrabble—couldn’t quite pull off the victory. Neither could all the millions of dollars of right-wing extremist organizations like the Tea Party Patriots and Freedom Works. Trailing in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran coaxed former NFL quarterback Brett Favre out of retirement to join his “team,”—just in time to throw the game-winning “touchdown” in the final seconds to help defeat Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel in yesterday’s Republican primary runoff. 

McDaniel was a right-wing radio personality and state legislator whose politically-incorrect sound bites and promise to make Mississippi “proud” by guaranteeing it would be last in everything—by refusing federal funds for the state that Cochran had successfully steered toward the poorest state in the country. Santorum claimed that voters could make a “difference” for their children and their grandchildren by voting for McDaniel; it was hard to know if he was actually making a “serious” statement, but it is clear that for Tea Party and other right-wing fanatics, their hatred of “others” is just a necessary side effect of their anti-government agenda. Somehow, a majority of the 95 percent of whites in the state who vote Republican in the state were about to lose their minds.

The Republican “establishment” in the state realized that McDaniel would be a disaster, so they rallied the support of Sen. John McCain and assorted well-known local political figures behind Cochran. But it was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce paying for a political ad featuring a longer-haired and bearded Favre reminding voters had “gambled” and won with Cochran, who brought in much needed money for education for their children. Some would say that Cochran, like Favre, just didn’t know when to “retire,” but McDaniel was definitely not “right” for a state as poor as Mississippi, where a whites presume to understand what the black population—at nearly 40 percent the largest by percentage in the country—thought was “good” for them.  

Cochran himself tried to “distance” himself from his usual anti-Obama commentary in order to attract Democratic votes. But Favre’s last second pass was probably the difference between victory and defeat, as Cochran won by a bare 6,000 vote out of 380,000 cast. No doubt he was “persuaded” to intervene by the markers he owed former Gov. Haley Barbour and others for “help” with a member or two of his wayward family, but I have to admit that while I’m “disappointed” that Favre would support a Republican, out of pragmatism at least he picked the (considerably) lesser of two bad choices for the state. McDaniel has refused to concede, but his obvious fanaticism should be a lesson to anyone about the dangers of mindless disregard of consequences.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Michelle Wie wins first major, primed for "greatness"

I admit that in the past I have trashed LPGA golfer Michele Wie, and for perfectly good reasons. Wie was elevated to the status of the next Tiger Woods, she was showcased on not one, but two segments of 60 Minutes before she had done anything to deserve it. She received a multi-million dollar endorsement deal from Nike, merely on artificially-generated publicity. She cried and had childish tantrums when she made mistakes. She tried to put herself on her own pedestal by living in a fantasy world where she was “better” than other LPGA golfers, and that she should be playing with the “big boys” on the PGA tour. That she fell flat on her face everywhere, and then had the nerve to claim that she played “better” than what appeared. That she was paid millions of dollars (mainly in Asian and European tournaments) merely for showing up.

Coming into the 2014 season, Wie played a total of 160 tournaments, and won a grand total of 2. Her last tournament win was in 2010. But this weekend, we are hearing comments about her “road to redemption.” From Annika Sorenstam, it’s "This could be the beginning of something really big,” and “You are great for golf” from Gary Player. Even Greg Norman chimed in “Now for a great journey.”

Why all this renewed belief in the “greatness” of Michelle Wie? She actually won a major this year, when few thought she was in even in the picture at Pinehurst #2. The course seemed tougher for the women than for the men the previous week, even though their tee positions are closer to the hole. But Wie surprised, taking a four-stroke lead into the third round. But then she had her typical meltdown and entered the final round tied with Amy Yang. However, it was Yang it wilted in the early rounds, and Wie survived to win her first major in 38 tries. It was also Wie’s second win of the year and fourth of her career in 173 tournaments.

I am not, of course, ready to throw in the towel. A lot of so-called “hot” players have had a “career” year, only to disappoint; case in point is David Duvall, and perhaps Rory McIlroy is another candidate. We’ve seen supposedly “up-and-comers” like Ben Curtis and Wayne Grady win a major and disappear from view. Shaun Micheel’s 2003 PGA Championship was his only PGA tour victory, so winning a major is not precisely an endorsement of greatness to come. But in the case of Michelle Wie, the media created her, and anything she does will feed that monster.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The party of hate far from “dead” after Cantor primary loss

Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor held the powerful office of House Majority Leader, but that wasn’t enough to prevent his primary loss to someone who was an unknown only a few months ago. Although Cantor was infamous for blocking the “grand bargain” between the president and Speaker of the House John Boehner in regard to a long-term deficit reduction plan, and backing repeated useless votes against the Affordable Care Act and other administration policies, he was a “reliable” voter for nearly everything that a Republican majority voted for in the House of Representatives—and providing for it the reputation as one of the most “do-nothing” Congresses in history. 

But this was not extreme enough for the voters of his district. He made the mistake of voting for aid for Hurricane Sandy victims, and then raising the debt ceiling; showing actual “leadership” on a national level was anathema to Tea Party voters in his district. But far worse was the rumor that he supported some kind of immigration reform, which even a Fox News poll suggested that most Americans now support, and the Republicans were in the process of announcing their own “comprehensive” reform package.

So who is David Brat, who as the new Tea Party favorite handily defeated Cantor in the Republican primary, which Cantor with 79 percent of the vote in 2012? He is an economics professor of a supposed “libertarian” bent at Randolph-Macon College, which is a “liberal arts” school of a more conservative bent. According to one rating website, he is “humorous” and “smart” to some students, to others he is “unclear” and frequently “off subject.” Brat barely put up much of a campaign, spending very little money, and rarely making an appearance in public to meet-and-greet voters. His small government “platform” wasn’t anything new, and his support of “Main Street” over “Wall Street” was little more than cute words. His main “theme” was opposition to immigration reform, which he claimed was the principle difference between him and Cantor. Brat claims that the U.S. should simply stop supporting oppressive Latin American regimes; it is a little late for that.

Interestingly, Brat’s opponent in November will be another Randolph-Macon professor, Jack Trammell; his political views are reportedly a mystery to even his students, and most observers say he has no chance to win in the heavily Republican district.

Since it is clear that feeding the monster that is race and racism was Brat’s ticket to victory, what will it take to convince people that the Tea Party mentality is a no more a viable national political ideology as was others of its paranoia-feeding ilk, dating back to the so-called “American” or Know Nothing Party? These voters don’t want their representatives to solve problems, but “formulate” policy that only worsens them merely, because of their hate.

Why is it that every position these people hold, their racial attitudes are part of the equation? “Big government” is always equated with “helping” minorities over whites; they seem to want to maintain the vast economic and social disparities, because that is the (white) American way. The military and law enforcement budgets must be preserved to maintain this “balance,” but help to the less fortunate—usually identified with minorities—must be “drowned in a bathtub.” Opposition to the ACA is predicated on the belief that some people don’t “deserve” the same medical care as others. Is it a total lack of common human decency? Is it greed? Is it a failure to discern the consequences of actions? Is it blatant hypocrisy? Is it the ignorance of blind hatred of anything “liberal”? 

In an op-ed in the New York Times, “research suggests that primary voters are not more ideologically extreme than those who vote for the same party in general elections,” and that “while primary voters are more interested in politics than general election voters are, this heightened level of interest does not translate into systematically different political views within each party.” The “conventional wisdom” is that incumbents “fear primary voters” more so than general election voters, and this is a false notions based on a study by herself and other political scientists who allegedly found that there is little ideological difference between the two.

The problem with this supposition—which on its face suggests that the Republican Party is one big Tea Party—is that merely having “similar” political views does not mean they all share similarly extreme, inflexible views that are closed to any compromise. The people who voted for Brat are focused on a single issue, not the “big picture.” Their hate governed their reason; not all Republicans “hate,” and those were the ones who apparently sat out the primary election because few actually thought that Cantor would actually lose. 

And so as long as the media continues to ignores the racial element that drives the extreme right, and is only exposed when freelancers crash Tea Party events, we will see more of this. And who created this “monster”? Republicans themselves, who fueled the atmosphere of paranoia and scapegoating against “brown-skinned” people for political “gain.”  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Operation “Iraqi Freedom”: Was it worth 4,000 American lives?

When he was elected president by means many believe were foul in 2000, George Bush had already decided to invade Iraq, before he had any thought of doing the same in Afghanistan. He, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were already busy working out a strategy to convince the country that they had to “finish” the job the elder Bush had failed to do a decade earlier. It was a matter of “family honor.”

That, of course, was removing Saddam Hussein from power once and for all. Hussein certainly wasn’t a “good” guy in the Middle East, but being a “bad” guy was all that uncommon either, given the disparate and often violent factions that made up a country’s demographics. Iraq certainly wasn’t the exception. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was broken apart and the various European colonial powers seized nominal control over its former territories. Iraq was never a “formal” country, but essentially a composite of the lands of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites created by the British out of considerations of oil and trade routes to India. All three hated each other, and the British who forced them together even more so. 

Unable to control the fighting between these three groups, the British brought in the nominal King of Syria, Faisal, to be king of Iraq. He and his successors would be either murdered or die under suspicious circumstances, and continued ethnic and religious instability would ensue until the secular and Sunni-dominated Ba’ath Party took control, from which sprung Hussein. While it would be politically incorrect to “defend” the Hussein regime, keeping the country “together”—given the ethnic hatreds and differing levels of religious fanaticism—was virtually impossible without the use of force. One should be reminded that contrary to what the Bush administration claimed, Islamic extremism and terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda were anathema to the regime and were suppressed by whatever means “necessary.”

We have been told that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would lead to a “democratic” and “civilized” Iraq. That clearly has not happened. One reason why it did not was because the Shiite-dominated regime that replaced him badly misplayed its new power, refusing to share power with Sunnis out of a sense of revenge for past wrongs. Shiites were also insistent on forcing its version of Islam into the political, social and legislative fabric of the country. All this alienated Sunnis and Kurds from the start; they didn’t need much to start “hating” each other again—and killing each other in the hundreds of thousands all over again.

But more important was the fact that the Bush administration and the American public had no clue about the force of these divisions in Iraq, and that “liberal” democracy and Islam are simply not compatible (that economically the country is still in disarray has not helped either). Americans thought that if only the Shiites would be allowed a “say” in the running of the country, “normal” political debate would ensue. But instead of being the “oppressed” people, they turned out just like the oppressor. In the north, Kurds had always thought of themselves as an autonomous entity, apart from the state, the Sunnis, meanwhile, found themselves on the losing end of the equation, and it should be no surprise now that they found allies in Al-Qaeda and now the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It goes without saying that support for Syrian rebels also seems to have been a serious “mistake.” 

In the meantime, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is facing a disaster of his own making, with Kurdish and ISIS forces threatening to take control of oil fields in the north. Sunni extremists and its Al-Qaeda allies control most of central Iraq now, and claim as their own about two-thirds of the country as a whole. Iran now sees an “opportunity” to make its own play in Iraq, using the excuse of “protecting” Shiite holy sites. Things might have been different if al-Maliki had agreed to allow a nominal American supporting force in Iraq, whose presence would have given backbone to Sunni moderates against the various extremist and jihadist groups, but that time has long passed. The only real hammer the U.S. has over the current regime is to force it to seek a power-sharing scheme with Sunnis in return for any military assistance.

With Iraq unraveling, the question now is: Was it all worth it? Was it worth more than 4,000 American lives? Some of us did oppose the war from the start, especially since it was “sold” on fabricated “evidence” of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist links. Its “success” was predicated on the continued U.S. presence to serve as a counterweight to the insurgents and extremists it had “inadvertently” unleashed. Since the U.S. pull-out in 2011, bombings, assassinations and killings have been a daily occurrence with no end in sight. This is a “country” that never really was, and never could be without a “strongman” who ran an "oppressive" regime to keep its disparate parts “together.” It seems inevitable now that Iraq will eventually break apart into three pieces, and U.S. interests (i.e. oil and influence) will be in far worse shape than they were before the Iraq war began.