Monday, November 30, 2009

Misinforming Comments

Desultory Eclecticism had the privilidge of attending a recent conference at Columbia University marking the 5th anniversary of Ukraine's Orange revolution.  Speaking about the remaining challenges Ukraine faces moving forward, Professor Yuri Shevchuk noted the overwhelming Russian influence on Ukrainian media space.  On November 25, Washington, D.C.-based Foreign Policy printed an example, in an unironic manner.

In "Ukraine's Phantom Flu: How Yulia Tymoshenko created a swine flu panic to get herself elected president," "freelance journalist living in Moscow" Yulia Ioffe spins a misinterpreted, offhand comment from a Tymoshenko campaign official into an accusation of attempted electoral theft.  Citing fuzzy polling statistics and doing her best to dismiss both the WHO's positive reaction to Tymoshenko's decisive action and rival candidate Victor Yanukovich's history of corruption and dirty play, Citizen Ioffe provides a depressing example of the state of journalism in Russia and of editorial discretion in the U.S.

By paragraph 2, Desutlory Eclecticicism was formulating his snarky comment.  How could Ioffe neglect to inform her readers that, since no candidate has a legitimate prospect of breaking the 50% threshhold in the preliminary election on January 17th, this vote will almost certainly be followed up by a runoff between Tymoshenko and Yanokovich on February 7th, and that voters supporting the 3rd and 4th party candidates in the preliminary vote would never dream of supporting Yanukovich over Tymoshenko in round 2?  How about a mention that Ukrainians, as post-Soviets, are still notoriously dependent on government aid and advice to make the right decisions--like picking up tamiflu and staying off of busses--in the midst of a flu epidemic?  Who exactly is this obscure official source who Ioffe references on five different occasions in a 650 word article, always alluding to the same cryptic remark?

Fortunately, Taras Berezovets, the official in question, was educated in England.  Within hours of the article's appearance, he had responded with a comment headed "misquoted."  Outlining his personal understanding of Western journalistic standards, he laments that a hatchet-job like Ioffe's was actually published in an influential American journal.

Read it here, and don't miss the comments section.

Uninformed Comments

Desultory Eclecticism spent Thanksgiving weekend surrounded by reasonably adorable children who demanded that he find cartoons for them on youtube; we stumbled upon this one:

The clip is probably a closer approximation of "Sponge Bob: North Korea."  Desultory Eclecticism traveled to China in the early 2000s and saw a hard-working, crowded, chaotic, vibrant society with an occasional battalion marching in lock-step in downtown Beijing, but no outward signs of political repression (which are certainly there below the surface).  University of Michigan political scientist Ron Inglehart has forecast a democratic thaw in China within the next two decades; he may be on to something.  Unlike the ossified one-party Soviet regime, in 1978 Deng Xiaoping's Chinese Communist Party committed to a program of economic liberalization that has made China the #1 trading partner of WalMart and the proud owner of $800 billion in U.S. Treasury Bills.  Yes, the lethal force used in Tianamen Square in 1989 to disperse college students asking for political reforms similar to those instituted by Gorbachev under Perestroika better fit an impudent oil-rich dictatorship than a calculating Asian one, but the Chinese economy could not survive the bad PR of a similar massacre today.  So long as the Party delivers annual 10% growth, there will be no Tianamen-sized demonstrations, but eventually it will fail to hold up its end of the bargain.  Its calculated reaction to the subsequent popular movement will determine whether Inglehart's predicted thaw occurs peacefully or not.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Palin's Progress

Stupid is (the continued harping on the Russia/Alaska comments) and stupid does (the repeated answer that it was more--well, much more--than a joke) aside, the stupidest answer given in this interview met with nothing more than a half-disbelieving, half-glazed over follow-up from the interlocutor:

"I disagree with the Obama Administration on that.  I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is going to grow.  More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead.  And, um, I don't think the Obama Administration has any right to tell Israel that the, the Jewish settlements cannot expand."

Palestinians are stateless, not Cherokee.  And with 20% (and growing) of Israel proper already Arab, Palin's flocking settlers, who are substantially more fecund than their secular reformed co-religionists back in Tel Aviv, would probably be better served staying in West Jerusalem and doing their best to maintain the Jewish demographics of the Jewish state.  Besides being anathema to both Palestinians and to those who pimp the Palestinian cause to justify violence against Israel and its U.S. underwriters, Palin's position is on the lunatic fringe of of any legal or diplomatic debate about the issue.

Charlie Gibson, who smugly opens the above clip, helped create this monster.  Desultory Eclecticism will reprint in full an email sent on the day after then-VP-nominee Palin's interview with the aforementioned Charlie Gibson:
Just a little note on the Palin interview.  Charlie Gibson seemed frustrated by the whole thing, especially when she kept repeating the same answers (NATO obligations, Israel's right to bellicosity, raiding Pakistan, Al-Qaeda Al-Qaeda Al-Qaeda), but this is his own [expletive deleted] fault.  Charlie Gibson, during the primary debates, actually posed the hypothetical to Obama: let's say we win in Iraq, withdraw our troops, but then Al-Qaeda comes back and takes over? what would you do?  The correct response to this question is: I would eat nothing but chicken McNuggets for the remainder of my term as President.  The level of foreign policy ignorance required 1) to suggest that the Al-Qaeda that attacked us in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, Aden, Nairobi, and Tanzinia, you know, the one that Bin Laden actually founded and leads, is or has ever even been our primary adversary in Iraq, or worse, that it has actually somehow been in control there, and 2) that a fundamentalist Sunni group that is widely despised in the Arab world is somehow poised to take control of a majority Shi'ite country if American troops are withdrawn, is staggering.  When you parrot Bush Administration talking points for eight years and call it news, why are you surprised when the Governor of Alaska 1) doesn't know any better, and 2) gets a bump in the polls the day after endlessly repeating talking points that a majority of the electorate now thinks are true because they haven't been exposed to legitimate journalism since the Lewiensky scandal? [expletive deleted]
 Your Humble Desultory Eclectic 9/12/08

Sunday, November 15, 2009

State of the Union?

"There's a 55-45% chance right now that disintegration will occur," [Igor Panarin] says. "One could rejoice in that process," he adds, poker-faced. "But if we're talking reasonably, it's not the best scenario -- for Russia." Though Russia would become more powerful on the global stage, he says, its economy would suffer because it currently depends heavily on the dollar and on trade with the U.S... Interest in his forecast revived this fall when he published an article in Izvestia, one of Russia's biggest national dailies. In it, he reiterated his theory, call[ing] U.S. foreign debt "a pyramid scheme"...
The article prompted a question about the White House's reaction to Prof. Panarin's forecast at a December news conference. "I'll have to decline to comment," spokeswoman Dana Perino said amid much laughter.  For Prof. Panarin, Ms. Perino's response was significant. "The way the answer was phrased was an indication that my views are being listened to very carefully," he says.
Then eight days ago...

...and thirteen days ago he spoke at a Tea Party meeting in Houston.   Sure there's low-hanging fruit here, but I'll wait for Glenn Beck to inadvertently bake it in a pie and leave it on my windowsill to cool.  If there's one thing tea-baggers aren't, its traitors to the flag, and the schadenfreude of seeing Obama become the anti-Lincoln wouldn't outweigh the torture of being told by their Mexican opposite numbers (coca-cola-in-a-plastic-baggers?) to "APPRENDE ESPANOL O ADIOS" (Desultory Eclecticism assumes that Mexican conservatives' command of Spanish grammar is comparable to American conservatives' command of English grammar).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

State of the Federation

"We haven't managed to get rid of the primitive structure of our economy...The competitiveness of our production is shamefully low...Instead of a primitive economy based on raw materials, we shall create a smart economy, producing unique knowledge, new goods and technologies, goods and technologies useful for people."
Dmitry Medvedev, as quoted in the New York Times 11/12

Last year George Will wrote that Russia still has "essentially a hunter-gatherer economy."  While hyperbolic, the characterization is not far off.  In the 1940s the USSR developed the T-34 tank, indisputably superior to the frightful German Panzer, and used it to drive the Nazi Army from its soil.  In the 1950s it beat the U.S. into orbit.  But by the 1980s, father-of-the-Soviet-bomb Andrei Sakharov was comparing superpower developments to a long-run cross-country skiing race: yes, the USSR is developing technologies and keeping the gap between it and the U.S. close, but it is only doing so by copying the new equipment of its competitor; without innovation of its own it can never hope to catch up with the leader.

Medvedev is obviously right about the need for the Russian economy to diversify while it is still flush with resource riches, but the idea that it can develop a second Silicon Valley or Menlo Park is fanciful.  Henry Kissinger, noting that Hungary '54 was the only communist country ever to make a World Cup semifinal, attributed the sporting failure to "too much stereotyped planning," which "destroys the creativity indispensable for effective soccer."  

How far, and for how long, do such metaphors extend?  Ukraine has a fairly large reserve of underutilized, technically-trained software engineers who have been put to work on outsourced American software development projects.  Perhaps Russian could make itself over into a new India, but it is a long way from developing any new skis.    

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Very Problematic Song

Если у вас нету дома,
Пожары ему не страшны.
И жена не уйдет к другому,
Если у вас, если у вас,
Если у вас нет жены,
Нету жены.
Оркестр гремит басами,
Трубач выдувает медь.
Думайте сами, решайте сами,
Иметь или не иметь.
Иметь или не иметь.
Если у вас нет собаки,
Ее не отравит сосед.
И с другом не будет драки,
Если у вас друга нет.
Если у вас нету тети,
Ее вам не потерять.
И если вы не живете,
То вам и не умирать.

If you have no home,
There's no fear of a fire.
And your wife won't leave you for another...
If you have no wife.
The orchestra thunders with bases,
The trumpeter blows his brass.
Think for yourself, decided for yourself,
You get it or your don't.
To have or not to have.
If you have no dog,
He won't be poisoned by your neighbor.
And there will be no conflict with a friend,
If you have no friend.
If you have no aunt,
Then you won't lose her.
And if you're not alive,
You won't lose your life.
The orchestra thunders with bases,
The trumpeter blows his brass.
Think for yourself, decided for yourself,
You get it or your don't.
To have or not to have.
(trans. Michael Wasiura)

Desultory Eclecticism's favorite song from the Soviet equivalent of A Christmas Story.  Many of the ballad lyrics come from famous historical poems, and this song is likely no exception.  Unfortunately, I have no more information.  Enjoy Sergey Nikitin's vocals and Andrey Myagkov's lip-sync.  We'll revisit this movie come новий год (the New Year's holiday)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In the News

In my newspaper years, I prepared my share of advance profiles of public figures, and I know the scut work that goes into sifting through a decades-long career. In the old days it meant digging through packets of yellowed clippings in the morgue, interviewing widely, searching for those moments of controversy or surprise that revealed something interesting about the subject. How many rulings, opinions, articles, legal arguments, panel discussions, and speeches had there been in [Sotomayor's] long years of service? What bloodhound producer at Fox News had waded into this haystack to find these two choice needles?
Then I flipped to MSNBC, and lo!… they had the exact same two clips. I flipped to CNN… same clips. CBS… same clips. ABC… same clips. Parsing Sotomayor’s 30 years of public legal work, somehow every TV network had come up with precisely the same moments!           
 Bowden goes on to report that the clips were dug up by a pair of conservative-minded amateurs who took it upon themselves to find the dirt, or at least what could play as dirt in a limited soundbyte, on each of Obama's six or seven potential SCOTUS nominees.  The clips, ubiquitous within hours of Sotomayor's eventual nomination, were already well-know to Michelle Malkin's followers (of whose number Desultory Eclecticism is not).  Bowden, an actual journalist, gives his take at the link above.  The most interesting angle Desultory Eclecticism can provide, however, ties in with another column in the same issue of The Atlantic.
Castigating the comedic left (forgive the tautology, and the alliteration), Christopher Hitchens picks some unfunny  half-truths from a few Al Franken books and conflates them with the broader Stewart/Colbert phenomenon.  Oh, Christopher; I disagree. The Daily Show has been chronicling the decline of television journalism/commentary (much of the best material being furnished by Fox News in its evolution since November 4, 2008 from plain wackiness to certifiable insanity), and doing a really good job of it.  I don't know if there's an army of liberal muckrakers comparable to the Sotomayor hit-squad, but wherever the goods for this juxtaposition came from, it stands as a better piece of journalistic commentary than anything Desultory Eclectism has encountered on the real news, PBS excepted: