Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween.

Something scary for Halloween.  As a recovering Mormon who turns to alcohol in times of need, Desultory Eclecticism has a special place in its heart for recovering alcoholics who turn to Mormonism.  Please, take Jesus' advice, and for 9 minutes, "Become passerby."  I don't understand it; you don't understand it; Harvard symbologists (if only they were real) wouldn't understand it. Just enjoy it.

Desultory Eclecticism is interested in anyone with information about the "Swords Into Plowshares" figurine featured in the above rant.  Having eaten out of bowls stamped "сделенно в CCCP", changed bulbs in light fixtures labeled "сделенно в CCCP", ridden trains and subways with factory plates denoting "сделенно в CCCP", hitched rides in its fair share of Krushchev-era Ladas  which were "сделенно в CCCP", Desultory Eclecticism is at a loss as to why a statue gifted to the United Nations by the autarkic, atheistic Soviet Union depicting the sentiments of a Isaiah 2:4 Micah 4:3, and the Book of Mormon's own II Nephi 4:12, was made into a paper-weight with a half-quote, in Russian--"to my dear, modern devotee"--from a man too obscure to warrant his own wikipedia page, then stamped--in English--"MADE IN USSR".

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Incurious Case of Alex Zinc

WEAVER: My name? Alex Zinc.
JUDGE: Where were you born?
W: Oh, in Nuremberg--that illustrious ancient city; rightly famous, honest judge.  First, because certain laws were passed there, that are of no interest here.  Second, for a debatable trial.  Third, because the best toys in the whole world are produced there.
J: Tell you lived; and don't lie.  It would be useless here.
W: Oh, I was hardworking, your honor.  Stone on top of stone; deutsche mark after deutsche mark.  I founded a model industry.  The best buckram, the finest felt were made by the Zinc Company.  I was a humane and diligent boss: honest prices, generous salaries, never a complaint from my consumers, customers.  And above all, as I was telling you, the best felt produced in Europe.
J: Did you use...good wool?
W: Oh, extraordinary wool, your honor.  Loose, or in braids; wool of which I had the monopoly; black wool, and chestnut; tawny and blonde; and more often...gray...or...white.
J: From what flocks?
W: Oh I don't know!  It didn't interest me.  I paid for it in cash.
J: Tell me, have your dreams been tranquil?
W: Well...usually, yes judge. my dreams...I've heard grieving ghosts...groan.
J: Weaver, step down.
Primo Levi?, as quoted by Ralph Williams

This week's The New Yorker  attempts to answer why, in the Information Age, so many are so virulently misinformed, transcending even the willful ignorance that allowed Alex Zinc to purchase Birkenau "wool" with a clean conscious (not conscience).  Desultory Eclecticism, in an attempt to perpetuate its own brand of misinformation, prescribes (with the caveat that, in the fearful words of Yahweh, when people work together "nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do" Gen 1:6, and that one good individual planting himself on his ideals can do quite a bit as well)  prayer:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish 
the one from the other. 

Reinhold Niebuhr

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Still in the USSR?

“Soviet” is the name of a hotel that stands on the left-hand side of Leningrad Prospect in Moscow. On the other side stands a kebab house, which had long earned the nickname “Anti-Soviet”—not because its clientele or kebabs were subversive but because of its position: directly opposite the “Soviet".  
Last month the owners of the café decided to make a brand out of the Soviet-era joke and put up a sign “Anti-Soviet”. But they chose the wrong moment and inadvertently caused a political scandal which speaks volumes about Russia.  
On September 7th the Moscow union of pensioners and veterans, a name that oddly unites those who fought in the war with those who served as commissars, guards in the Gulag and secret policemen, complained to the local authority about “the inappropriate political pun” and urged that the name be changed in order not to irritate those who “respect the Soviet period in our history”.
The Economist, October 15, 2009 
A recent Economist article touches on a political-cultural tug-of-war rarely covered well in Western media, and The New Yorker's cover of August 3rd paints an accurate picture of it: the Soviet past is not dead; it isn't even past.
Even in Ukraine, the CIS state that may have suffered most under Stalin , foreign travelers are immediately struck by the persistence of Soviet-era landmarks.  Every village with a paved road has a Lenin statue (or three) and a Great Patriotic War memorial.  Main streets are still named Lenina and Sovietskaya.  In Mykolaiv, a medium-sized city near the Black Sea, the avenue named in honor of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Bolshevik secret police, has thankfully been renamed 3rd street; but at it's main bus stop, at the intersection with Prospekt Lenina, the small pavilion's old sign remains prominent: DZEREZHINSKOVO.  A Soviet Rip Van Winkle would not find himself at home in Ukraine--or Russia--2009, but he would certainly find enough of the familiar to be thoroughly confused.  Why?

How to remember your parents' (not your grandparents'; not your ancestors'; your parents') tragedies and triumphs--tragedies and triumphs on a biblical scale, destruction and celebration that dwarf 9/11 and the 4th of July fireworks--and forget their context?  A large minority of Ukrainians, in the midst of their second economic crisis since independence, will wax nostalgic--after a few glasses of vodka--about the good old days of the Brezhnev era.  Given a moment to reflect and an opportunity to vote, almost none would return to the cave.  Even Russia, perhaps disingenuously, celebrates Independence Day, marking the end of Soviet rule in the country.  

So why Prospekt Lenina and the ubiquitous statues?  Why not remove that red star atop the steeple on city hall?  Faulkner would understand, even if I don't.  The Soviet Union passed from the sands of time in 1991, the Confederate States of America in 1865.  South Carolina removed the confederate flag from its state house in 2000; expect the last red star to come down in 2126.  Robert E. Lee monuments still dot the South; wait for the last one to disappear, then wait 150 years; the final Lenin should come down.  The war memorials, of both, never will.  

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Україна має талант

Easily the most amazing thing Desultory Eclecticism has ever seen.  And it touches on some of the themes of an upcoming post.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Opening Day

The Washington Post does all the heavy lifting for us in setting up the upcoming (well, scheduled for mid January) Ukrainian Presidential election.  Desultory Eclecticism will be taking a field trip to do first-hand research during the last week of December.  Expect several more posts on this topic before all is pushed back multiple times and ultimately decided sometime in late Spring.  Let's hope Desultory Eclecticism's dark horse candidate, Арсеній Яценюк, can regenerate some momentum.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Party Paradox

Desultory Eclecticism loved Keith Olberman as a SportsCenter anchor but thinks he's on the douchier side of broadcast journalists (and that says a lot).  The following, however, despite the petty sniping, is largely spot on.

The talking head at the end of the segment makes a valid point sandwich, squeezing an intelligent observation between thick slices of bready sarcasm: Presidents have a much easier time accomplishing across stereotypes.

No Democratic President as unpopular as Bush 2006 could have passed the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act, run such massive budget deficits, or pushed for sensible immigration reform, without running afoul of tea baggers ; likewise, no Republican President would get positive coverage from Keith Olberman for increasing drone strikes in Pakistan (Juan Cole has continued to criticize the tactic despite the change in administration).  Paradoxically, throughout the 20th Century it was Democratic administrations, perceived as 'weak on defense' even then, who got us into wars (Hoover, WWI; Roosevelt, WWII; Truman, Korea; Kennedy/Johnson, Vietnam)* and achieved welfare reform and balanced budgets (Clinton), while Republicans warned us about "The Military Industrial Complex " (Eisenhower), finally got us out of Vietnam (Ford), presided over the largest budget deficits (Reagan), and passed sizable tax hikes (Bush I).   

The stereotypical party images are not entirely arbitrary.  Obama will get his healthcare reform bill.  He will also escalate in Afghanistan.  He will have a much easier time implementing the latter, just as, say, Romney, would have had a much easier time with the former (McCain was too unpopular with "the base"; but the fantastic Sarah Palin...). 

*Gulf War I (Bush I) lasted 100 hours and accomplished its mission precisely because that mission was so prudently circumscribed.  In hindsight, Desultory Eclecticism is hawkish on providing military aid to rebelling Shiites in the aftermath of the conflict.  Bush I took a less hawkish position; the revolt was forcibly put down; the millennia-old culture of the Marsh Arabs  was destroyed; a Democratic Secretary of State justified sanctions that led to the deaths of millions of ordinary Iraqis; Saddam Hussein remained in power for another 13 years.  Meanwhile, George Pataki can blame 9/11 on Clinton.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Глупый француз II

Yesterday, on Desultory Eclecticism...And now, the thrilling conclusion of Anton Pavlovich Chekov's "The Stupid Frenchman."

"Could it be that I'm dreaming?" the clown wondered.  "This man wants to die!  Yes, yes, he wants to die.  It's evidenced on his sad face."

"This service...there's nothing to be said," growled the neighbor, addressing the Frenchman.  "These long intermissions aggravate me horribly!  From portion to portion you're obliged to wait half an hour!  And so your appetite is given over to the devil, and it puts you in it's three o'clock, and I have an anniversary dinner at five."

"Pardon, monsieur," Parkour turned pale, "but you're already eating dinner!"

"N-no...what sort of dinner is this?  This is breakfast...pancakes..."  Here they brought the neighbor his stew.  He poured himself half a dish, seasoned it with cayenne pepper, and began to gulp it down.

"Poor thing..." continued the horrified Frenchman.  "Either he's sick and doesn't notice his dangerous situation, or else he does all of this intentionally...with the aim of suicide...My god, if I'd only known I'd stumble on such a picture here I wouldn't have come!  My nerves can't stand such scenes!  By the looks of him he's an intelligent man, young...full of strength..." he thought, staring at the neighbor.  "He could yet bring glory to his Fatherland...and it's highly possible that he has a young wife, children...Judging by his clothing he must be rich, rich enough...yet something compels him to decide on this step?  And he couldn't choose a different mode to die?  The devil knows how cheaply life is valued!  And how base, how inhuman am I, sitting here and not even walking over to help!  Perhaps he can yet be saved!"  Parkour resolutely stood up from the table and approached the neighbor.

"Hear me, monsieur," he addressed him in a soft voice, "I don't have the honor of being acquainted with you, but, nevertheless, believe me, I am your friend...Couldn't I help you with anything?  Remember, you're still have a wife, children..."

"I don't understand you!" the neighbor shook his head, staring into the Frenchman's eyes.

"Oui, why hold back, monsieur?  I see it perfectly!  You, sir, are eating so much's difficult not to suspect..."

"I eat a lot?!" the neighbor was amazed, "Me?  Really am I supposed to eat if since the very morning I haven't eaten anything at all?"

"But you're eating a horrifyingly large amount!"

"Well, why are you so worried?  I don't have to pay you for it!  And in general I don't eat too much!  Look around.  I eat like everyone else!"

Parkour looked around in horror.  The waiters jostled and bumped each other carrying whole mountains of pancakes.  At the tables people sat eating the mountains, and salmon, and caviar, with the same appetite and daring as the pleasant looking gentleman.  "Oh, what a strange country!" thought Parkour, exiting the restaurant.  "Not only the climate, but even the stomachs are strange!  What a country, what a strange country!"
(trans. Michael Wasiura)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Глупый француз

Since the dawn of Western Civilization (a good idea, no?), even the most inept derider has been able to find his butt in France.  But decades before freedom fries and death panels, a man of actual talent deigned to pick the low hanging comedic fruit of the tree of liberté.  Today, Desultory Eclecticism is pleased to present Part I in a II part series of Anton Pavlovich Chekov's "The Stupid Frenchman."

A clown from the Gintz Brothers' Circus, Henri Parkour, entered a Moscow dough house for breakfast.

"Give me some light soup!" he ordered.

"Would you like that with or without pâté?"

"No, with pâté it's too filling.  Just give me two or three croutons."

Waiting in anticipation for the light soup, Parkour occupied himself with observation.  The first thing he cast his eyes on was a full-bodied, pleasant looking gentleman sitting at the neighboring table preparing to eat pancakes.

"How notable the amount they serve at Russian restaurants!" the Frenchman meditated, watching how his neighbor doused his pancakes with hot butter.  "Five pancakes!  Can one man really eat such a quantity of dough?"  The neighbor, meanwhile, spread his pancakes with caviar, cut each one in half, and gulped them down in under five minutes.

"Strange," ruminated Parkour, evaluating his neighbor.  "He ate five pieces of dough, yet he orders more!  They say some illness accompanies one who eats so much..."

The waiter set down in front of the neighbor a mountain of pancakes and two plates with balyk and salmon.  The pleasant looking gentleman drank a shot of vodka, ate the salmon, and took on the pancakes.  To Parkour's great astonishment, he at them as quickly as if he had been hungry.

"Evidently he is sick," concluded the Frenchman, "and he probably imagines, the screwball, that he'll eat that entire mountain.  He won't even eat three pieces and his stomach will be full.  And after all that he'll have to go up and pay for the entire mountain!"

"Give me some more caviar!" yelled the neighbor, wiping the butter from his lips with a napkin, "and don't forget the green onions!"

"But...on the contrary, the mountain is already gone!" the clown realized in horror.  "My god, and he's eaten all of the salmon?  This isn't even believable.  Can the human stomach stretch so?  It can't be!  If this gentleman were in France he would be exhibited for money...God, the mountain is already nothing!"

"Give me a bottle of punch," said the neighbor, receiving the caviar and onion from the waiter, "but heat it up first...What else?  Perhaps give me another portion of pancakes, but faster..."

"Got it, and what shall you order after the pancakes?"

"Something a little lighter...order up some sturgeon stew, Russkie style, and...and...I'll think it over, get a move on!"

Don't forget to tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion of Chekov's "The Stupid Frenchman."

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Perhaps Desultory Eclecticism's favorite literary journalist.  I picked up The Soccer War  at my favorite bookstore last week.  In it, an interesting first-hand interpretation of the Six-Day War:

"Why did the Arabs lose the 1967 war? ...You could hear that Israel won because Jews are brave and Arabs are cowards.  The Jews are intelligent and the Arabs are primitive.  The Jews have better weapons...all of it untrue!  The difference lay elsewhere--in the approach to war.  When war breaks out, everyone in Israel goes to the front and civilian life dies out.  While in Syria, many people did not find out about the 1967 war until it was over...Syria was losing the Golan Heights and at the same time, that same day, that same hour, in Damascus--twenty kilometers from the Golan Heights--the cafes were full of people, and others were walking around, worrying about whether they would find a free table...The soldier cannot be alone: he will never hold out if he...knows that his brother is sitting in a nightclub playing dominoes, his other brother is horsing around in a swimming pool, and somebody else is worrying about how to find a free table...War cannot be a matter for the army alone, because the burden of war is too great and the army itself will not manage to support it.  The Arabs thought otherwise--and they lost.
(The Soccer War; p-201-202)

I understand we're not in Syria, 1967.  But for the past two days I've personally been much more distraught over this news than this news .

Monday, October 5, 2009

Low Hanging Fruit

Desultory Eclecticism took a field trip to Columbia University this past weekend for a Svetozar Stojanovic lecture.  The Serbian-American intellectual focused on the role of U.S. media in framing international issues, but Kosovo and South Ossetia naturally came up.  Stojanovic, a self-described "yugoslav," did not and does not oppose Kosovo's independence; however, in his concern on where the precedent may lead, he led me to today's blogpost:

"American support for Kosovar independence within the highest circles of the U.S. foreign policy establishment was nearly unanimous.  Yet when Russia intervened to secure South Ossetia's independence from Georgia a year later, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Condoleezza Rice were both vocal opponents of Russian actions, Rice comparing it to Hitler's annexation of the Sudatenland, and Brzezinski likening it to Stalin's invasion of Finland..."

I'm getting nit-picky here, but a Soviet-specializing, Russian-speaking, former National Security Advising Secretary of State couldn't do better on this than Godwin's law?