Archive for the ‘diversion’ Category

Glenn Beck, consider yourself on notice.

You denounced $500,000 in government subsidies to help the National Czech and Slovak Museum after it was hit by massive flooding in Cedar Rapids as one of your stupid, ill-informed examples of “waste” in how taxpayer dollars are spent?

$500,000 for exhibits at the Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids — what about the Serb, Croatian and Albanian exhibits? Don’t we care about them?

While I’m a bit surprised you managed to name three separate East-Central European ethnic groups (I honestly didn’t think you were that knowledgeable), your snide rhetorical question lacks any logic.

Do us a favor: when it comes to a question about which you know little or nothing, just keep your mouth shut.

(Yes, I realize this means you’ll have to be silent pretty much all the time. That’s the point.)

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The linguist Geoff Nunberg has a fascinating post at NPR on the linguistic vacuity of the Pledge of Allegiance. Nunberg does a nice job of explaining some key bits of historical context pertaining to the origins (and evolution) of the Pledge, and showing how the Pledge is little more than a ritual lacking a real connection to the language therein.

Particularly interesting is Nunberg’s explanation about how Congress inserted the politically thorny phrase “under God” into the Pledge during the Cold War. It’s rather archaic language, though the obsolescence of “under God” isn’t without its advantages, as Nunberg explains.

That ambiguity has certain advantages. But it actually came about because of a linguistic misunderstanding. The words were taken from the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln asked his listeners to resolve that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Except that in the Gettysburg Address, “under God” didn’t modify “this nation” but the following phrase, “have a new birth of freedom.” In Lincoln’s time, “under God” was a common idiom that meant “with God’s help” or “the Lord willing.” People used it to qualify a bald prediction or promise, mindful of the admonition against vainglory in the book of James.

Inshallah indeed.

And as a tangent: before traveling to Egypt several years ago, I had read in some guidebook that inshallah — “God willing” — was a commonly used Arabic phrase. I had no idea how common, however, until I spent two weeks in Egypt and heard it peppering everyday speech. I can still recall my good friend hailing a cab for us back to his flat in the Mohandiseen neighborhood, leaning into the window of a taxi, and saying to the driver, “Mohandiseen, inshallah. The use of inshallah made his statement a question, practically a plea. Literally, it was like flagging down a taxi in Manhattan, then asking the cabbie, “Brooklyn, God willing.” But in everyday speech, it functioned more like asking, “Will you take us to Mohandiseen?” Still, the fact that my doggedly atheistic friend was invoking God in hailing a cab offered a clue to how ubiquitous inshallah was in Arabic speech.

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Now, I know the NYT isn’t necessarily going to produce the most insightful reporting on the Tea Party movement, and articles with headlines like “With No Job, Time for Tea Party” smack of elitist smugness.

Still, it’s hard not to think that this air of condescension isn’t warranted, when you read about some of the illogic at work in the minds of Tea Partiers.

For instance, this story refers to a woman from the Philadelphia area, Diana Reimer, as one of the “stars” in the effort of a Tea Party group called FreedomWorks to fight health care reform.

On the one hand, you have to respect someone willing to toil so hard for a cause in which she believes.

Ms. Reimer often wells up talking about her work. “I’m respected,” she said, her voice breaking. “I don’t know why. I don’t know what is so special. But I’m willing to do it.”

On the other hand, you’d like to see a little more thought and reason put into that cause and her efforts to advance it.

She and others who receive government benefits like Medicare and Social Security said they paid into those programs, so they are getting what they deserve. [Emphasis added.]

“All I know is government was put here for certain reasons,” Ms. Reimer said. “They were not put here to run banks, insurance companies, and health care and automobile companies. They were put here to keep us safe.”

She has no patience for the Obama administration’s bailouts and its actions on health care. “I just don’t trust this government,” Ms. Reimer said.

So much to parse. There’s the objectionable premise that only those who “paid” into entitlement programs are, well, entitled to collect those benefits. By this logic, public education is a crock since there aren’t a whole lot of first-graders paying the property taxes that support their education. (And yes, I’m aware that most kids’ parents are paying in some form or another for the property taxes that finance public schools. But if you have to make that kind of a retort, it just illustrates how torturous your logic is.)

Then there’s also the part about finding it OK to accept Medicare while simultaneously railing against government-sponsored and -funded health care.

Honestly, we ought simply to repay these people the money they “paid” into the Medicare and Social Security systems over the years, then let them fend for themselves in the eternally virtuous free market when it comes to health care and retirement income. Maybe they won’t think so harshly of government involvement in health care when they find no corporation willing to insure a senior citizen without premiums that are astronomical above and beyond the currently stratospheric levels.

Then there’s Jeff McQueen, who got involved with Tea Partying in the Rust Belt after losing his job in auto parts sales.

He blames the government for his unemployment. “Government is absolutely responsible, not because of what they did recently with the car companies, but what they’ve done since the 1980s,” he said. “The government has allowed free trade and never set up any rules.”

He and others do not see any contradictions in their arguments for smaller government even as they argue that it should do more to prevent job loss or cuts to Medicare. After a year of angry debate, emotion outweighs fact.

If you don’t trust the mindset or the value system of the people running the system, you can’t even look at the facts anymore,” Mr. Grimes said. [Emphasis added.]

Well, you certainly can’t reason — or argue — with that (il-)logic. Though I do think it nicely encapsulates a problem pervasive in politics of all persuasions, and why it’s increasingly difficult to find any sort of common political ground on anything. After all, if you don’t share the mindset and value system of the person dispensing the facts, then you just can’t be bothered with facts.

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Without comment

(Source: Martin Šutovec, Sme, 17 Feb. 2010)

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To read the scuttlebutt out of New York (I’m including you, NYT), you’d think Yankees fans had been waiting a lifetime for another chance at a World Series title.

(Actually, in the case of these tykes, they have waited a lifetime. But they can get back to me about being long-suffering Yanks fans after they hit puberty in a few years.)

It’s just the latest manifestation of the arrogance I associate with New Yorkers, and one that grates on my nerves in the worst way.

Fortunately, the Onion skewers this New York state of collective delusion mind perfectly in a story about another long-suffering fan base down in Philadelphia.

The last time the Philadelphia Phillies brought a World Series title back to the City of Brotherly Love, the nation’s financial sector was in complete ruin, the cost of a gallon of milk was only $2.74, fans watched the Fall Classic while huddled around their slightly-less-streamlined high-definition television sets, and Philadelphia slugger Ryan Howard was just 28 years old.

This week Howard, 29, hopes to lead the Phillies to their first World Series championship in more than 360 long days and end a title drought that has been punctuated by several embarrassing losses, including a 2009 opening-day defeat by the Atlanta Braves and a June loss to the Atlanta Braves. During its infamous dry spell, the team has also come up short twice, winning both an NLDS and an NLCS title but having absolutely no World Series ring to show for it.

To put into perspective just how long the Phillies have gone without a championship, the earth has almost made one full orbit of the sun since the franchise last paraded through downtown Philadelphia holding the famed Commissioner’s Trophy.

Wow. Has it has been a long time. Just ask this guy:

“Truthfully, I never thought I would live to see the Phillies get to another World Series,” longtime fan David Oswald said. “When I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last November, the doctor only gave me eight months.”


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Many, many months ago I happened to become a “fan” of NPR on Facebook, probably by accident. (I think I was trying to click an adjacent link and instead unintentionally hit the “become a fan” link.)

I’ve never, ever in my life listened to NPR, mainly because I largely stopped listening to the radio way back in high school, once my parents put a CD player in my car, obviating the need to listen to the endless commercials, inane banter and crappy quasi-metal that increasingly dominated most of the “modern” music stations at the time. (By that point, if I had the radio on in the car, it was tuned to classic rock, since I knew there’d be less chitchat, and more importantly, by virtue of the station format I knew I wouldn’t have to suffer through lots of crappy music whose sole “virtue” was its “newness.”)

Anyway, since I virtually never listened to the radio at home (where I had an ample CD collection at my disposal), no longer having a car in college meant I basically stopped listening to the radio entirely.

It was also in college that I was exposed to the phenomenon of liberal-minded, highly educated folks name-dropping NPR in everyday conversation. After a while, I started to think I might be missing something, and I kind of regretted not listening to it, but it was a passive lament; I wasn’t about to start listening to the radio on a regular basis, even if I thought there might be something worth hearing.

Anyway, since becoming an unwitting “fan” of NPR, I’ve been getting various NPR stories and articles popping up in my news feed, which isn’t bad. Sometimes there are interesting stories, things I wouldn’t get elsewhere or might otherwise miss, and it’s nice in general to have another source of news, even if not a comprehensive one.

Regular NPR listeners always struck me as people of relatively like mind in terms of politics and worldview. They’re probably much more establishment than me, and more wedded to the Democratic Party, even if to its “progressive wing.” In short, they’re people with whom I should see eye to eye and find easy conversation and general agreement on a range of issues, and that’s probably always been the case.

Still, in recent days my generally favorable view of NPR and its listeners has soured a bit. For instance, last Tuesday there was a story about the outrage of conservatives in Egypt over an “artificial virginity device” designed to simulate the wedding-night bleeding of a virgin bride. I had read about this controversy elsewhere, but I was unprepared from the culturally condescending attitudes of some of the comments of NPR Facebook fans on the story:

“Hard-line Islamic and Arab values are an assault on women”

“I laugh at their insane stupidity”

“This is no surprise for a culture that still lives in the middle ages, considers a woman as less than a man, and an object to be bartered, traded, or dumped if she doesn’t measure up to whatever arbitrary standards a man decides to invoke.”

“As I was flying home last week on Egypt Air, I was reading the English version of the Cairo Newspaper, and on the front page was this story about this virginity device…at first, I thought that my sleeping pill was causing me to read this looney story, but then as I read on, I realized that Muslim women can be put to death in Eygpt for lying about their virginity…. I shook my head and said yet again “so glad to be lucky enough to have born in the USA”. I didn’t tell anyone about this story when I got home, for they would have thought that I made it up….NPR comes through for me!”

And so on. I understand the instinct to feel outraged at a society in which women appear to be second-class citizens. But it’s another thing to use so broad a brush in conflating Egypt with the Arab and Islamic world more broadly in condemning this behavior. I can’t claim any great breadth or depth of knowledge about either, but I know that there is considerable difference among Arab (and especially Islamic) societies, and more than that, I know that I don’t know enough to make blanket indictments of the Arab and/or Islamic world. I mean, if I were to learn of a case of a young woman of European descent living somewhere in the United States being discouraged from attending college or pursuing work outside the home so that she might find a husband and become a homemaker — certainly not a stretch of the imagination — I wouldn’t take that as an invitation to condemn the entire European and Christian value system that I blame for this sorry state of affairs.

Discovering that Orientalizing attitude disturbed me, though after thinking about it I decided it wasn’t entirely surprising. I kept thinking of the Phil Ochs song about sixties liberals, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” and thinking these were probably just the equivalent people for the aughts.

Then, this afternoon, another NPR story caught my attention, one with the suggestive headline, “Slavic Soul Party: The Bayou Meets Bratislava.”

Naturally, seeing “Bratislava” in the headline, I was intrigued and clicked on the story, thinking it would have some Slovak angle.

Naturally, that assumption proved completely wrong.

Evidently Slavic Soul Party is “a New York brass band that takes inspiration from Balkan and gypsy music, but also funk and New Orleans traditions.” There are mentions of “Greek and Macedonian groups,” “Serbian brass” and an “experimental Balkan music movement,” as well as “traditional Slavic music.” But the closest anything comes to Bratislava is perhaps conflating “Slovak” with “Slavic.”

Perhaps this is just a case of the person who writes the headlines not being the person who writes the articles, and thus the headline writer is to blame. A perfectly plausible suggestion. It doesn’t make it any more excusable to think Bratislava is somehow located in the “Balkans” — maybe the headline writer was confusing Bratislava and Belgrade? Or Bucharest? — and it doesn’t absolve the responsible party from having this Orientalist perspective to think the Balkans begin roughly where the former Iron Curtain stood. Moreover, it makes NPR look bad as a news organization if it can’t even get basic European geography correct. (When I was in journalism school this kind of factual error would’ve be grounds for an automatic F, assuming the professor in question knew it was a mistake.)

Of course, even if the headline writer is to blame for this butchering of Eastern and Central European geography, the author of the story isn’t immune from similar mistakes born of cultural ignorance:

Of the nine players in Slavic Soul Party, only one has a real background in traditional Slavic music. That’s Peter Stan, a third-generation Romanian accordionist. When Stan takes a solo with this band, his roots show, but so does his delight in breaking with orthodoxy.

Romanians, of course, identify themselves not as Slavs but as descended from the Roman colonists of the empire, two millennia or so ago. They speak a Romance language (even if it has absorbed various Slavic words), and they would be quick to take offense if someone was to suggest they were Slavic. To say a “Romanian accordionist” shows his “roots” in playing “traditional Slavic music” is nonsensical. Or, at least it would be to anyone who knew better.

Obviously, it’s not entirely fair to pick on NPR and its listeners for demonstrating staggering ignorance of a region they probably envision as “Eastern Europe” or the “Balkans,” since the wider population likely knows even less. But it does make me realize how dilettantish all the involved parties can be.

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The main train station in Prague, once and again officially called Wilson Station in gratitude to the American president credited with championing the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the Great War, is getting a new sculpture of Woodrow Wilson.

Not without a fight, though.

Sculptor Michal Blažek won the competition and exhibited a scale model of his winning entry today in the area in front of the train station. Originally there was a statue of Wilson in that space, but it got removed during the Nazi occupation, and the bust of Wilson made its way into a storeroom of the National Museum down the street.

Now, the winning entry (in this case Blažek’s) is supposed to use a cast of the original bust in the final product. However, the National Museum couldn’t loan the bust to Blažek because previously it lent the bust to one of the sculptors who didn’t win the contest, Oldřich Hejtmánek, who made a cast of it for the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia last year.

That’s where today’s events got interesting.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, Hejtmánek was on hand at today’s festivities. Blažek called Hejtmánek a “thief who stole the head of the president” — that sounds like the title of a trashy paperback — then punched Hejtmánek before fleeing the scene.

Blažek (center, in red), tries to fend off two journalists after felling his rival, Hejtmánek, lying in the background after being felled with a punch

Blažek (center, in red), tries to fend off two journalists after felling his rival, Hejtmánek, lying in the background after being felled with a punch

This bizarre tale would get even more interesting if only somewhere in the train station or National Museum there was a statue of Wilson from the shoulders down, wearing a sad sign asking, “Have you seen my head?” a la the early Simpsons episode, “The Telltale Head,” where Bart cuts off the head of town founder Jebediah Springfield.

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