Sunday, June 27, 2010

Soccer and world politics

Bill Plaschke, writing for the LA Times, tries to convince America that we should stop coddling our soccer team and start expecting more of them. He convinced me, at least. I, probably like most Americans, had no idea our team was as good as it is. We're always led by the media to believe that they're the perpetual underdogs, forever destined to mediocrity in the great, world-unifying sport of soccer.

In short, I think America's view of our soccer team is a reflection of our own world view. Yes, we love our football, baseball, and basketball, but those are sports of our own making. It's okay to excel at them, because they're our games, and it's understandable we would do well. Especially since we're the only ones who really play them. Other countries may play similar games, but they inevitably change the rules to suit their own fancies (and ensuring they won't have to face the expectation of being able to challenge the Americans).

Not so with soccer. Soccer is the rest  of the world's game, and America is a late-comer to the party. We should not expect too much of our team because, for all our American exuberance and enthusiasm, we're still young upstarts on the world stage (never mind that most countries in the world, as they exist today, are younger than America--it's our culture that is young and always will be). The part of America that cares at all what other countries think of us feels that we have much to apologize for, including not enthroning soccer at the center of the sports universe like so many other countries do.

Don't get me wrong. America has made our share of mistakes in our relatively short history. But being America isn't one of them. While much of the world contributed to the cause of World War II, it was America that proved to be the solution. Look up to European culture, intellect, and history all you want, but that same culture, intellect, and history is what bred the Third Reich, allowed it to grow unchecked, and then nearly succumbed to it. America, typically late to the party, pulled the rest of the world's fat out of the fire.

That same world has resented us for that, and has resented us for not allowing them to put the blinders back on again and go back to their cultured, intellectual lives. America called the spade of Communism a spade and refused to let the rest of the world ignore it. We seem to remember our lessons a bit longer than the rest of the world. Yes, we made our mistakes. Yes, we had our Vietnam. But without us, the world would have done...well, pretty much the same things they do today, with a few exceptions: drag their feet, hem, haw, and throw up a barricade of red tape to keep from having to actually stand up to the hydra heads of fascism. "Yes, we're against it in principle and all, but who are we to judge? One man's fascist is another man's liberating hero, etc. And shame on you, America, for always being about such things!"

Unfortunately, a continuous diet of anti-American sentiment and cultural criticism has taken its toll on the segment of America who believe that it is better to be liked than to be respected (or worse yet, right). They've grown increasingly embarrassed at the rest of the country's refusal to do obeisance to the world's superior culture and open-mindedness. They blanch at the continued audacity of labeling our baseball championships a world series (though really, who but the Japanese can challenge any American team? Who but the Japanese even play a version of baseball even close to what we have?). They want to crawl into a deep hole every time an American president goes all "cowboy" on a foreign fascist state. And one way they can atone for being American is to downplay our team's performance in the one, highly-visible sport we have come to share with the rest of the world.

As Plaschke rightly points out, Americans have been playing organized soccer for over 30 years now. While that's certainly not as long as other countries, it's plenty of time for a country of our population, talent pool, and monetary resources (not to mention love of just about any sport that comes along, as evidenced by the sudden interest in lacrosse) to become a world competitor. And, though most Americans probably don't know it, the American team was ranked 14th in the world coming into the World Cup. By all rights our inclusion in the final 16 teams should have been a foregone conclusion, not some amazing Miracle-on-Ice moment. The fact that our team (which has appeared in six straight World Cup tournaments) lost to Ghana (ranked 32nd, and appearing for their second time) should be cause for heads rolling when they return, not "Better luck next time" head-pats. Ghana was the underdog here, not the US!

So for Americans to get so worked up over our team's amazing World Cup run is at best ignorance, and at worse a reverse-psychology ploy by our cultural apologists to cover their embarrassment that we darn Americans are trying to excel again. By acting as if our winning a World Cup would take a miracle they send a message to the rest of the world: Pay no attention to those players on the field. They don't know better. The more enlightened of us know we aren't deserving of actually winning against our obvious superiors. This is, after all, your game, not ours, so we have no business rising to dominance. I'm sure our players will realize that eventually if you'll just be patient with them.

I don't have a problem with America not being the best in every sport. We're not, and quite frankly, I cheered for the opponents of our last Olympic "Dream Team". America should never dominate just because it's our right to. Inventing the game has nothing to do with it. We have to earn it like everyone else. But it runs both ways. If we should  ever become a world soccer powerhouse, then good for us! We shouldn't have to apologize for being better. We shouldn't have to enfeeble our team by purposely skewing or ignoring the facts.

Nor should America have to apologize for having a different moral compass than the rest of the world--or perhaps for even having one at all. For all their disdain for America's superpower status, who is the first country they look to when they decide that somebody should do something about problem X over there? They want us to play world police and clean up the world's messes, and they want to simultaneously criticize and complain about us the entire time we're doing so. It saves them having to risk their resources and troops in getting it done, and allows them deniability later on: "No, no, we didn't want America to do that to you! Didn't you hear how much we badmouthed them and tried to talk them out of it?!"

Some day their plan is going to work too well. I believe it is already starting to. Tired of being continually beat up for doing what's right, we won't be there someday when the really need us. If Russia re-conquers eastern Europe and Iran turns the middle-east into a sea of glass and cuts off the world's oil supply they'll perhaps wish they hadn't played the game so well. But they'll be able to take consolation from the fact that the Americans never won a World Cup.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

How "The Empire" sealed it has an article out today about how the Star Wars franchise owes most of its success to "The Empire Strikes Back". Though Star Wars had been successful, very few sequels have measured up to the original. The success of "Empire" confirmed the franchise's staying power.
“It blew people away,” Roffman said. “It had this great integrity as a film and moved the story forward in a meaningful way. That was the birth of Yoda, the one where you realize Darth Vadar was Luke’s father, and (the film) looked like this simple black-and-white fantasy, and gave these layers of meaning and complexity.”
One of the most key pieces to the movie's success almost didn't happen. Director Irvin Kershner, who is largely credited for bringing depth to the series, was not interested in the project.

“I said I was not interested in this project,” Kershner said. “I responded that he had already done it, and I didn’t see what I could contribute. I also didn’t want to do it because none of us knew if a follow up to ‘Star Wars’ would work. It was a lot of pressure.”

Ultimately, Lucas persuaded Kershner to direct “Empire” by saying he’d put his own money into it, and would let Kershner have creative control. “George said, ‘This will be your picture, you’ll be on your own, and I won’t be looking over your shoulder,’” Kershner said. “That’s when I finally said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ And George kept his word.”
I know for myself "The Empire Strikes Back" remains my favorite of the six Star Wars movies. It was also the movie that helped me switch my idolization from Luke Skywalker to Han Solo. Han was cool in that movie. He continued his penchant for wise-cracks and brilliance under pressure, but added a new layer of sophistication. He got the girl. He had interesting friends. He had a noble side.

Yes, Luke was learning the Force and all that, but while Han's character developed, Luke's remained much the whiney, self-absorbed dork he had been in the first movie. And though his encounter with Vader changed him, we didn't really get a chance to see it until the third movie, by which point he had become the somber, brooding Jedi. Yes, he was key to the entire series, but he wasn't all that fun anymore. With Han Solo we got drama and fun!

The recent discovery of Star Wars by my children has given me a chance to go back and gain new appreciation for the newer trilogy, but the original trilogy will always remain my favorites. And "The Empire Strikes Back" will always lead the pack.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fathers Day thoughts

I miss my dad. He was a character and a tease, and could sometimes embarrass us, but he was also a fairly wise man. He knew quite a bit about what made people tick. I wish I could hear whatever advice he'd have for me right now. I've taken a rather unusual and bold turn in my life, and I could use his reassurance that I'm not getting in over my head.

What was one thing we could always count on with Dad. He believed in us kids. Even when he may have wanted to throttle us, he still could see our potential. When the first of us boys (not me) got brave enough to run a business on their own he was right there to cheer him on and help in whatever way he could. And he had more help to offer than we probably ever would have given him credit for.

I suspect most dads are not truly appreciated by their children--at least not until those children get children of their own. Now that I'm "grown up" and being a father myself I'm starting to see and appreciate what my father went through. Then I only saw that my dad worked most of the day and was too tired to do much when he got home. Now I realize that he wasn't doing that because he wanted to. He had an obligation to provide for his family, and he did it. He took whatever jobs he had to in order to do it.

For my Dad there was no such thing as the "ideal career path". He worked a farm, taught school, drove truck, sold vacuums and appliances, restocked stores, cleaned laundromats and churches, repaired sewing machines, and managed PE equipment. While he undoubtedly enjoyed some jobs more than others, he never took the attitude of, "I'm a _____, that's what I'm good at, and that's the only work I'll do."  If there was a job he could do, he would do it.

He volunteered a lot, too. He was PTA president for awhile. He was a scout leader. He was a scout committee chairman for a long, long time. He organized church libraries. He organized church fundraisers. He visited the elderly--something we are all often assigned to do in our church, but he took it quite seriously. I don't think he ever turned down a request to serve.

My dad was forty before I was even born. That just occurred to me. I supposed I knew that, but I just realized the significance of it. He was not exactly young anymore, and he was putting in twelve hour days before coming home to spend a few more hours fixing sewing machines. No wonder he wasn't exactly the most playful of dads. But I don't recall suffering for attention.

Anyway, I guess the bottom line is that my dad was a good man who worked hard for and loved his family. Unfortunately I took my time having a family of my own, so I didn't come to understand him very well until he was already gone. There is so much I would like to tell him now that is just going to have to wait. And I'm going to have to muddle through these changes in my life without the benefit of his wisdom, even though I'm positive he would understand exactly what I'm going through and would know just what to say.

I miss you, Dad. I love you. I'm sorry I didn't say it often enough.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Obama's brings the pitchforks and torches against BP

Jazz Shaw at Pajamas Media recently looked at the remarks by Congressman Joe Barton and had this to say:
But while the remarks could certainly qualify for some sort of MTV Music award for inept commentary, and Barton has already been forced into a mea culpa, one nagging problem remains. The Texas congressman’s statements were politically tone deaf … but he was also correct.
He goes on to explain how, while BP should by no means avoid responsibility for this mess, it is not the President's place to force them into paying damages.

We do, in fact, have laws in this country which cover precisely this type of scenario. Plaintiffs in large scale disputes such as this have a right to petition in court and have a third party arbitrate disputes, collect funds, and disperse them to the injured parties. But in each case one of two things happens; either the company does it voluntarily to improve their public image or a court directs them to take this action. There is no provision for an elected official from the executive branch to simply order such an action by fiat.

True, BP may have been under no legal constraint to follow Obama’s dictate. But given the fact that their popularity around the world right now isn’t exactly at an all time high, the president pretty much had them over a barrel of oil. And it does, as [John] Hawkins opined, carry the stench of being “lawless, creepy, and dictatorial.”
 He concludes with the following:
It would be a shame if the Gulf Coast denizens who rely on fishing and tourism for a living actually wind up waiting longer and receiving less because of President Obama’s desperate need to appear as if he’s doing something — anything! — in the face of this Deepwater Disaster film which simply refuses to go away. And even if the slush fund works perfectly and everyone is paid in a timely fashion, the day may yet come when savvy legal minds will find time to ask the president exactly where he found the constitutional authority to demand such a solution from a private company without the benefit of a court.
 I am all for BP paying for as much of this mess as they can. But they are not solely responsible in this mess. Not when we hear reports of would-be cleanup vessels being stopped due to insufficient life vests. Didn't the President just say this is a crisis? In crisis situations we don't stand on largely-irrelevant bureaucracy.

I, frankly, never thought it was appropriate to hold Bush responsible for the response to Hurricane Katrina. I do not think it's appropriate to hold Obama responsible for the Gulf Oil Spill, either. But the Democrats, in insisting on the former, have reaped the latter. What we need from the President is leadership--someone to cut through all the red tape to get the best and most resources into play to clean up the mess. A single call from Obama could have had the Coast Guard out of the way in no time. Let the courts handle who is to blame and who has to pay for it. Let BP come forward voluntarily with an offer of some initial pay-out to help those affected.

Unfortunately we have a President who does not know how to lead, but does have a habit of reaching for his bat whenever big business is involved. His need to beat up business goes beyond sticking up for the little guy. Little guys are employed by big businesses, too, after all. No, his need to bash business approaches the pathological. His need to be seen bashing big business borders on the narcissistic. Meanwhile we still have an oil slick problem, and all the leaders who could be doing something about this are wrapped up in some sort of Pyrrhic kabuki. 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

When I hear "Obama" and "leaks" together this is not what I think about

I saw this headline over on today:
 My first thought was of the Gulf oil spill, followed by an "Oh really?!" The article is actually about administration and staff members leaking information to the press.

Now I'm not one of those people who immediately assign ulterior motives to everything the press does, but that particular headline does seem a bit suspicious at a time when people are questioning Obama's handling of the Gulf oil spill. On the other hand, they could just be fond of making the President look like a brand of paper towels.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Has Cassini found life on Titan?

Scientists are reluctant to say so, and are determined to exhaust all other explanations first, but something unusual is happening with the hydrogen, acetylene, and methane levels on Saturn's largest moon. One explanation is a microbial form of life conjectured five years ago. Read the whole story from Popular Science.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Some thoughts on Helen Thomas' retirement

I suppose I should be happy. The left got caught in their own hypocrisy and someone's career was ended as a result. I don't find that at all satisfying, really. There is something deeply disturbing about all of this. Several somethings. Let me see if I can put a finger on it.
  • This was not some quasi-journalist talking head like Keith Olberman or Rush Limbaugh. This was a "real" journalist with a long and distinguished career for a distinguished news organization. That she felt comfortable letting out something like that is a sad commentary of where journalism has gone. I don't harbor some rose-colored notion of a "Golden Age of Journalism" when reporters gathered and reported facts in an unbiased manner. But there is something wrong when journalists so easily decide to make news instead of reporting it.
  • There are no doubt many on the right who are chalking up a scalp over this. "Bravo us! We finally caught one of them in the same sort of thing they get on us over, and we made it stick!" What a rotten world we are creating for ourselves where we lay in wait for one another trying to catch them being their worst selves.I don't want to live in that world. People make mistakes. You take anyone who makes a living by talking, and eventually you are going to catch them in a moment when they talk too much and think too little. The result is that the only people who will be able to take and hold power are those who can completely disconnect their words from their thoughts. Those people should never have power!
  • There are people who make their living by regularly saying much, much worse than anything Thomas said. Because they call themselves comedians and entertainers they get a pass. Again, do we really want to live in a world where people can say anything they want without fear so long as they put a laugh-track to it? Do we really want to live in a world where people don't actually make us laugh so much as race one another to the depths of vulgarity, incivility, and depravity in an effort to make us laugh at our own discomfort?
  • Our political domain has degenerated to the point of resembling the very Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the center of this whole incident. Each side unleashes political violence on the other, confident that they are only defending themselves, and that the other side started it. Who actually started it is so obscured by now that it's largely irrelevant. As I tell my squabbling children, I'm not interested in who started it. I'm interested in seeing who is going to have the courage to stop first.
  • The very battlefields that our two warring political factions choose to do battle in and the tactics they choose to employ tells me that it stopped being about who has the better ideas some time ago. No one is really interested in helping America anymore. It's about beating the other side. It's scorched earth politics. It's two drunken giants doing battle on an anthill. They're too drunk on piety to do much real harm to one another, but we poor ants are getting caught in the middle and crushed.
  • There are no real neutral sides in the battle. That Thomas was allowed to go that far unchecked indicates that there was no one interested in stopping her. I won't go so far as some as to accuse all the mainstream media of being in the left's pocket, but I feel it's quite safe to say there are very few journalists remaining interested in just presenting the facts and letting each citizen make up their own mind. Each journalist has their ideology, and will carefully select facts to push their audience in that direction. They'll even find subtle and not-so-subtle ways of telling their audience what to think. This is why I think bloggers are doing so well right now. To quote from Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirate of Penzance": "I don't think much of our profession, but contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest." Listen to any blogger or journalist for long and you'll detect their agenda. But the majority of bloggers will never pretend they have no agenda at all.
  • No one will learn a thing from Thomas' fall. No one is going to step back from the battlefield and question whether or not this is all worth it. They'll continue the fight, tooth and nail, while the house burns down around them. I would welcome this if I thought for a moment they would destroy only each other and leave everything else still standing. Unfortunately, I see them dragging the rest of us down with them.
No, I am not happy that Helen Thomas finally went too far and went down in flames. There is nothing to take any satisfaction in here. There is nothing encouraging about any of this. I see things only getting worse.

I need to go read something cheerful before I go to bed.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Vote for Mickey Kaus!

I just saw his campaign ad. I like it:

I can't vote in California, but I'd dearly like to see both Barbara Boxer sent packing and someone with this sense of humor in Congress. If you are someone who CAN do something about this...please do!