Thursday, September 9, 2010

Obligatory Pre-9/11 Post

"A nondenominational church in Gainesville, Florida, plans to stage what it calls the “International Burn a Qur’an Day.” Led by the evangelical pastor Terry Jones, a 58-year-old firebrand, the Dove World Outreach Centre wants to burn copies of the Qur’an “ to raise awareness and to warn…about the teaching and ideology of Islam,” according to a statement on the church’s website...

...If Jones wished to garner global attention for his actions, he got exactly that, but maybe not the kind he bargained for. He admits that he has received fewer than $1,000 in support of his planned protest....

...Christian organizations in the US have decried Jones and his church. The National Association of Evangelicals, the largest evangelical umbrella group, called Jones to cancel the event: “The NAE calls on its members to cultivate relationships of trust and respect with our neighbours of other faiths. God created human beings in his image, and therefore all should be treated with dignity and respect," it said in a statement." 

While extremist ratings-drivers garner a disproportionate share of media attention, it is encouraging to see how little support exists for such antics even within Jones' own congregation.  When the cameras roll on Saturday, Desultory Eclecticism naively hopes: 1) that a reasonable share of 61% of Americans has the critical capacity to call a native Christian extremist an unrepresentative idiot; 2) that this reasonable share then extrapolates the likely existence of a similarly radical fringe in other religions; 3) that the reasonable share goes on to wonder if, perhaps, 19 suicide bombers may be a rather inadequate synecdochic mascot for the world's 1.4ish billion nominal Muslims; and 4) that a representative sample of the reasonable share goes on to reflect on this enlightening train of thought the next time it is asked for an opinion on the construction of a swimming pool in lower Manhattan.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Silly Season in Politics and the English Language

Some textual excerpts from the below NPR story:
  • "…but his message about the gulf and his attempts to talk about the economy: completely overshadowed by the President’s remarks about the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York…"
  • "…and by Saturday, when he was on the Gulf Coast, he said ‘um, well I didn’t say it was wise to build the mosque; I didn’t say that they should build the mosque; I just said that they had the right to do it…’”
  • "…the problem for the President is more than 60% of the people in the polls say that the mosque should not be built…"

Desultory Eclecticism has, over the course of time, made several regrettable decisions; one of these aforementioned regrettable decisions placed it in Cairo for five consecutive mid-July days.  Sweatily assuming that all good Egyptian Muslims would be both devoutly eager to surrept its saved Christian soul and insidiously willing to cater to its decadent Western vices in the process, Desultory Eclecticism donned flip flops and a Speedo and entered every spired/crescent mooned/domed building in the greater megalopolis area.  In not one did it encounter a single Imamish Mohammedan with the avuncular courtesy to so much as direct it to the water slide.  Only after much embarrassment did Desultory Eclecticism learn that mosques are among the less appealing hang-out spots among God's several houses.

Which is why, empathetic to their error, Desultory Eclecticism was so excited to explain to NPR, Cable News, Newt Gingrich et al, and all of those protesters down at 51 Park, that the proposed Cordoba House, with its swimming pools and utter-lack-of-the-sort-of-prominent-Hollywood-based-support-that-would-have-allowed-this-sentence-to-cleverly-and-smoothly-proceed, appears in fact actually not be much of a mosque at all.

Nobody really listened.  Even the alleged Secret Muslim President has conceded the semantics of the debate with his “I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision, uh, to put a mosque there…” and such.

Without getting into all of the Muslim=suicide bomber and Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf=Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf=Mahmoud Ahmadinejad business, Desultory Eclecticism concedes the last word to the last bastion of reason:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Municipal Land-Use Hearing Update
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

First Person Update: Waiting in line to board a train yesterday evening at Chicago's Union Station, I found myself making small-talk with a friendly Arkansan.  When it came out that I lived in Manhattan, he asked what I thought of the Ground Zero Mosque.  I told him I didn't really have a problem with it.  He asserted, very clearly, "Well I'm against it!"  I responded that it was less a mosque than a Muslim Y (and it would look like this, not, say, this).  He, somewhat surprisingly, asked, "Really? I didn't know about all that.  Well, I don't have a TV.  I guess maybe I don't know that much about it."  I suggested that a TV probably wouldn't have helped much.  We arrived at, "Why is everybody making such a big deal of this?"  Why indeed.  

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Death of a Bureaucrat

One fine evening a no less fine civil servant, Ivan Dmitrich Chervyakov, sat in a second row seat watching the show through opera glasses. He felt himself at the height of bliss, when suddenly (in stories one frequently encounters such "when suddenly(s)", and the authors are right: life is full of surprises), suddenly his face wrinkled up, his eyes rolled back, his breathing stopped, he lowered his opera glasses, he doubled over, and...AAAAHHH-choo! He sneezed, as is evident. A sneeze--by any man, in any place--cannot be prevented. Peasants sneeze. And police commissioners. Sometimes even privy counsellors. Everybody sneezes. Thus Chervyakov, not in the least embarrassed, wiped his nose with a handkerchief and, being a polite person, glanced about. Had anyone been disturbed by his sneezing? Here arrives the embarrassment: he watched as an old gentleman, sitting in front of him, in the first row of seats, diligently applied to his bald head a handkerchief, muttering something to himself. In the old gentleman, Chervyakov recognized Department of Transport Civil General Brizzhalov.

"I've thoroughly splattered him!" thought Chervyakov. "He's a stranger, not my boss, but this is awkward nonetheless. An apology is in order."

Chervyakov cleared his throat, leaned his body forward, and whispered into the General's ear, "Pardon me, thy Excellency, I have thoroughly splattered thou...I accidentally...”

"Never mind, never mind..."

"Good God, excuse me. I just...I didn't intend to!"

"Oh, sit thee down please! Let me listen!"

Chervyakov, even more embarrassed, smiled idiotically and gazed at the stage. He watched, but he no longer felt blissful. He was haunted with unease. At the intermission he walked up to Brizzhalov, followed closely behind him and, overcoming his shyness, mumbled along: "I thoroughly splattered thou, thy Excellency...forgive's wasn't intended to..."

"Oh that's enough...I'd already forgotten, yet thou goest on about it!" said the General with an impatient twitching in his lower lip.

"He's forgotten, yet there's acrimony in his very eye," thought Chervyakov, suspiciously giving the General a good looking over. "He does not want to talk, but I really ought to explain to him that I really did not mean to...that it is a law of nature, or else he'll think that I intended to spit on him. He may not think so now, but later, thinking it over...!"

Arriving home, Chervyakov told his wife of the unpleasantness. His wife, it seemed to him, interpreted the event too light-mindedly. Initially she was startled, but soon, realizing that Brizzhalov was but a "stranger", she calmed down.

"Nonetheless you should go and apologize," said she, "or else he'll think you can't handle yourself in public."

"That's just it! I did apologize, but he took it somewhat strangely...He didn't speak a single sensible word. And yet there wasn't time to talk all it out."

The next day Chervyakov put on a new uniform, got a haircut, and set off to explain himself to Brizzhalov. Upon entering the General's reception room, he observed there many petitioners, and among the petitioners was the General himself, who had already begun receiving requests. Having questioned several supplicants, the General now raised his eyes on Chervyakov.

"Yesterday at the 'Arcadia', perhaps thy Excellency remembers," the middling bureaucrat began his report, "I sneezed, sir, accident splattered...forgi..."

"Such trifles...God knows it! Now what can I do for thee?" the General addressed the next petitioner.

"He doesn't want to talk!" thought Chervyakov, turning pale. "He's angry, it means...No, this cannot stand...I will explain it to him..."

When the General finished chatting with the final petitioner, he set off for the inner rooms of the apartment. Chervyakov paced behind him and mumbled: "Thy Excellency! If I may be so bold as to trouble thy Excellency, this comes only from a longing, if I may say so, for repentance!...Unintentional it was, if you will but deign to believe me, sir!”

The General assumed a lachrymose face, waved his hand, hid himself behind a closing door, and dismissed Chervyakov: "Why, you must be ribbing me, my good man."

"What is there possibly to make fun of?" pondered Chervyakov. "There is absolutely nothing laughable here! A General, and yet he can't seem to understand! If such is the case I can no longer stand to beg forgiveness of this fanfaron! The devil take him! I'll write a letter but shall come to him no more! By God I won't!"

So thought Chervyakov walking home, but the letter to the General was never written. Chervyakov thought and he thought, yet he never thought out that letter. He arrived next day to explain himself in person.

"Yesterday I ventured to disturb thy Excellency," he began mumbling when the General raised upon him inquiring eyes, "not for the purpose of humor, as thou deigneth to say. I was apologizing for that, which, sneezing, I splattered thee, sir...and to jest never occurred to me. How could I make fun? If we were to stoop to joking between us, why, it would be the end of respect between persons...such could not be..."

"Away with you!!" barked the suddenly shaking, purpling General.

"What, sir?" whispered Chervyakov, numb with horror.

"Away with you!!" repeated the General, stomping his foot.

In Chervyakov's stomach something snapped. Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, he backed himself to the door, exited onto the street, and floundered along. Arriving home, he mechanically removed his uniform, lay down, and died.

trans. Michael Wasiura

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Joy of Vanities

After putting away (some) childish things, young(ish) Desultory Eclecticism discovered a method for determining which past friends and acquaintances it had not spoken with in too long: meet with them, exchange pleasantries, and see if they suggest becoming a sportswriter--"your write well; you like sports..."  When riding in cars, Desultory Eclecticism still likes to turn on sports radio just to remember how seriously Gus the accountant takes the Bears' decision to hire offensive coordinator 1 over offensive coordinator 1A; however, "The Decision" has raised no career path regrets.  Instead, Lebron James-gate provides a fun macrocosm of a professional commentariate generating controversy by missing the point entirely as the talking-past-each-other rift in the cutesy neverland of sports media has shown itself to be every bit as large, irrational, and vehement as the divide between Fox News and Pravda (yes, it still exists).

It began after Lebron and Co. lost to the Celtics in Round Two of the Eastern Conference playoffs and ESPN's J.A. Adande suggested that Lebron take solace in the ultimate fulfillment of Kevin Garnett, a solid, perennial All Star who had to leave home in his old age to team up with another aging perennial All Star or two in order to win a championship.  An odd career arc for Jordan's still-only-25-year-old presumptive heir.

Another article discussed the importance of themed jewelry, noting that Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and their collective 14 championship rings occupy a different tee box from Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and their empty fingers at all-time greats golf outings.  The article fails to mention that Gary Payton's legacy was not bolstered in any way by picking up a ring the Darko way on a bygone loaded Heat team, nor that the diamond-encrusted Lakers logo would have had to come off during Karl Malone's jersey retirement ceremony in Utah (you know, had The Champs not beaten the Lakers' experiment in 5).  Notably absent from the golf outings are the heavy handed Steve Kerr (5 rings) and Dennis Rodman (also 5).  

Today Scoop Jackson reminds us that other star athletes skipped town in their primes to join forces with more promising franchises.  Alex Rodriguez left Texas for New York, and after 6 seasons and the additions of Mark Texiera, C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and $73,000,000 to the highest payroll in baseball history, was vindicated by hitting .286 for a team that finally didn't crumble in October.  Reigning MVP Moses Malone left Houston for the aging Dr. J's 'Sixers, and both got jewelry. Same when Clyde Drexler joined Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston.

That's really nice, and if Lebron James wants to have a nice time and keep historical company with Moses Malone, Dr. J, Clyde the glide, and Kevin Garnett, that's neat too.  But Lebron James was not supposed to be Clyde Drexler or Kevin Garnett, Moses Malone or Karl Malone.  Sitting in Ann Arbor watching The Champs beat game 3 out of the Spurs in 2005, a naive young empiricist queried why Wilt Chamberlain and his superior statistical accomplishments (if he'd only known) was not considered the greatest basketball player of all time; Desultory Eclecticism rudely ended any possibility for further discussion by stating flatly: "Michael Jordan played in 6 NBA Finals and won 6 NBA Finals MVPs."

Jackson reminds us that Michael Jordan was never in Lebron's position, thus no one can prove that he wouldn't have run off to Detroit or L.A. as a talented-but-trophyless 25 year-old.  You can't prove that Joshua--with an assist from Yahweh--didn't effect that "the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves on their enemies" either; some of the greatest scholars of their generations wasted entire careers searching for the "missing minutes"--after all, is not this written in the book of Jasher?  The space ship behind the comet was similarly difficult to disprove.  Yet everything we know about Michael Jordan suggests that we can evaluate the available evidence and reach a reasonably confident conclusion.

Yes, Michael had Scottie; Magic had Kareem and Big Game James; Bird had Parrish and McHale; Shaq had Kobe, then Kobe had Pau.  Teams win titles.  Greats need help.  But they're not supposed to need Dwayne Wade AND Chris Bosh level help.  Odds are Lebron Inc. gets at least two rings over the next 5 years.  Scoop Jackson can argue that you can't prove that he wouldn't have gotten them by staying in Cleveland, or by joining a strong-but-sensible supporting cast in Chicago, or by moving to the Garden.  The point is that we should have had a seat on the battlefield in Gibeon.  Instead, the most unbelievably freakishly talented basketball player in the history of this blue-green earth has opted to remove himself from the Michael-Russell All Time Greatest debate so that he can move into the frat house he missed out on when he skipped college to become a millionaire at age 18.  If you can't beat 'em, collude.

Who wins here? Kobe Bryant.  After wasting a few years of his prime sulking on mediocre teams (the baseball years?), Kobe had put himself in a position to at least enter the Jordan-Russell debate.  Pop psychology suggests that, had he been born with lesser physical gifts or into a time and place that did not present such a rewarding opportunity to sublimate his pathologies, Kobe Bryant would have either been locked away for the good of society or else led that society into a disastrous two-front war.  Instead, he has moved into the gym from which he will not emerge until October, sleeping in 15-minute intervals every two hours and eating all of his austere, hyper-nutritious meals out of the same simple wooden bowl.

If, after death, an idosyncratically cruel Nike pits Desultory Eclecticism against Scoop Jackson in a feat of judgmental strength, Desultory Eclecticism will concede the lesser man the first pick, ceding the latter's hypothetical team of death Lebron James.  Until Thursday, in this situation, Jordan would have been the unquestionable pick here; even after June 2011, he's still probably your ticket to the Elysian Fields, but at least you may have to think about it.   

Monday, June 28, 2010

More Politics and the English Language

Dan Drezner and Desultory Eclecticism choose to prick their sewing needles into different, equally correct corners of the following pin cushion:

PANETTA: I think what's happened is that the more we put pressure on the Al Qaida leadership in the tribal areas in Pakistan -- and I would say that as a result of our operations, that the Taliban leadership is probably at its weakest point since 9/11 and their escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Having said that, they clearly are continuing to plan, continuing to try to attack this country, and they are using other ways to do it.
TAPPER: Al Qaida you're talking about.
Now, it is possible that CIA Chief Leon Panetta is using precise language to conceal a commonly oversimplified point.  After all, while Hizb-e Islami warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar--often referred to in the popular press as a member of the "Taliban leadership"--is doing reasonably well for himslef, this only serves to underscore Panetta's shrewdly concealed revelation that Hekmatyar, after hostilely opposing Mullah Mohammad Omar's original Taliban movement in the 90s and only loosely allying himself with the broader anti-NATO campaigns of the new American century, is in fact not actually a member of anything that can be plausibly defined as a united "Taliban leadership" and can thus be doing just as nicely as he pleases.  Perhaps if Panetta would lay this out a little more clearly when addressing a lay Sunday morning audience, his interlocutor would not be forced to question whether the Director of the CIA just used "Taliban" as an interchangeable synonym for "Al Qaida."      

Friday, June 11, 2010


Well, other people have made fun of soccer in general and of the World Cup in particular sufficiently for Desultory Eclecticism to leave it well enough alone.  That said, the upcoming tournament has precipitated its share of arguments.  In a frighteningly autobiographical twist, Desultory Eclecticism has been selected head chef and junior concierge for a the upcoming visit of several out-of-town friends-of-friends.  As he protested to the lead hostess, this will interfere with his ability to watch a team of 7th-tier American professional athletes battle the most revered heroes of the English nation to a thrillingly glorious draw.

"John likes sports," the lead hostess protested, "you two can sneak off to the bar and watch the game."

"No, no," the head chef/junior concierge retorted, "this isn't a sporting event; this isn't something Cowboys fans even know exists.  It's a cultural event, more like a ballet or an opera or any other European custom you'll endure once just to be able to say you enjoyed it."

"I don't understand," the lead hostess continued, furrowing her brow in a vain attempt to understand the situation.

At least there's the consolation of philosophy:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Older than Jesus

"Verily, that Hebrew died too early...As yet he knew only tears and the melancholy of the Hebrew, and hatred of the good and the just...Would that he had remained in the wilderness and far from the good and the just!  Perhaps he would have learned to live and to love the earth--and laughter too.  Believe me, my brothers!  He died too early; he himself would have recanted his teaching, had he reached my age.  Noble enough was he to recant.  But he was not yet mature.  Immature is the love of the youth, and immature is his hatred of man and earth.  His mind and the wings of his spirit are still tied down and heavy."  
--Thus Spoke Zarathustra, "On Free Death" (trans. Walter Kaufmann)

Spoiler Alert: Desultory Eclecticism saw "The Oath" last weekend.  The documentary focuses on Abu Jandal, the Yemeni equivalent of a grown up high school football star.  Jandal drives a cab around Sana'a, struggling to keep his young family clothed.  Customers sometimes recognize him, and groups of young men listen wide-eyed to his tales of the glory days.  Sitting in his cab reflecting, eschewing the documentarian's questions, dressing his son for school, Jandal's eyes too often remember and lament that the best times of his life are past.  

Abu Jandal--obviously--was not a football star.  Not a guitar hero.  Not even a soccer player.  In the mid-90s, at age 16, Jandal ran away from home to join the Bosnian resistance.  After that war, he moved on to Afghanistan and became a bodyguard to "Sheikh" Osama bin Laden.  In 2000, shortly before al-Qaeda (unbeknownst  to him) was to attack the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, Jandal abandoned the lesser jihad to start a family back home.  As a well-known al-Qaeda member, he was arrested and held for over a year.  He learned of 9/11 three days late when, standing at the window of his jail cell and straining to hear the sermon from a nearby Mosque during Friday prayers, an Imam praised the attack.      

Ali Soufan soon came to Yemen.  He gave Jandal, a diabetic, sugar-free snacks.  A few days later Soufan gave him photographs.  Jandal recognized 19 of the men pictured.  Soufan thanked him for tying the 19 hijackers to Osama bin Laden's Afghan camps.  Jandal cried.    

Jandal then revealed much more useful intelligence, was thanked for his forthcomingness, completed a "Dialogue" program designed to rehabilitate jihadists, signed a pledge to forsake violence, accepted government seed money, bought a taxi, and began a new life as a constantly-monitored former holy warrior.  He may still despise Western hypocrisy, but his beverage of choice is Coca-Cola.  

Blasphemy Alert:  Jandal, unlike Nietzsche's Jesus, did not die too soon.  He must sometimes look down at his soda belly, at his cheap taxi, at his son's red undershirt, and wish that he too had died a martyr.  He scolds the new generation for abandoning the old ways--in his day, al-Qaeda used violence as a tool; today, you kids just want to blow s**t up.  He is intelligent, charismatic, reflective, lonely.  He has lived long enough to understand the futility of the lesser struggle.  

Former "Manson Family" analyst Michael Scheuer would prefer that he be "taken out," or at least captured and tortured.  What's the point?  Jandal counsels aspiring jihadists against going to Iraq, against using violence.  He remains loyal to his memory of al-Qaeda, but laments that his al-Qaeda has disappeared.  He is an ex-hero whose past divulgence and current banality serve as a far better deterrent to the young than predator drones or enhanced interrogations.

After the film, director Laura Poitras fielded questions from the audience (Desultory Eclecticism <3 NY!!!).  She updated us on the status of Jandal and his recently-freed brother-in-law Salim Hamdan.  She discussed the challenges of filming in the Middle East and of returning home to the States.  

She talked about the prospective jihadists who consult Jandal.  As he was, they are--frustrated, idealistic, well-read kids--Peace Corps types.  They were amazed--and changed--to learn that Poitras did not conform to their stereotype of a colonizing infidel.  A little positive contact can go a long way.        

Autobiographical Aside Alert: While traveling in Egypt, Desultory Eclecticism paid the tourist price (nearly 80 cents) for a bag of tamarind juice after an older vendor corrected his younger business partner's initial quote.  Desultory Eclecticism continued on to a small square, sat, ate, got up, looked around, and, after well over an hour, finally returned the way he had come.  Waiting for an opportunity to tail a woman in a niqab and thus avoid being hit by a reckless driver on Cairo's busy, loosely-regulated streets, Desulotry Eclecticism felt a tap on his shoulder.  He turned around; a young man handed him the equivalent of thirty-five cents, made a gesture expressing his desire to avoid any argument, and ran back to his tamarind juice stand.  Should Jesus of Nazareth one day return to Earth on a chariot of fire, Desultory Eclecticism will petition that Cairo be spared for the sake of its one righteous inhabitant. 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Go Los Suns

With the Pistons' season all over but the ping-pong ball, Desultory Eclecticism has shifted his casual allegiance to 'Los Suns', who last night wore their Hispanic appreciation jerseys in protest of Arizona's new immigration law, which the eminently sane Economist characterized as "Hysterical Nativism".  Governor Jan Brewer responded with an open letter on  If we twist Brewer's partisan selectivity and skip over both extended sections and bad sports metaphors, we can come out of this believing that she is a good-old-fashioned Southwestern libertarian.  Two examples of creative reading:  

"Put simply, history shows that boycotts backfire and harm innocent people. Boycotts are just more politics and manipulation by out-of-state interests...It is time for our country to act to resolve our border security problem; an economic boycott in Arizona would only exacerbate it -- and hurt innocent families and businesses merely seeking to survive during these difficult economic times."

We'll give Brewer a pass on Apartheid South Africa and move on to a contemporary example of boycotts and sanctions: Iran.  While an out-of-state boycott of Arizona would damage its tourist industry at a time when cheap labor is sure to be flowing out, doing real damage to its economy and hurting "families and businesses merely seeking to survive during these difficult economic times" leading up to Federal mid-term elections, Brewer sees the real futility of economic coercion--economic self-interest tends to triumph.  The Chinese like cheap oil, and the Iranians like cheap toys and DVD players.  Even if sanctions were to keep Iranian oil from flowing out, domestic outrage would likely be directed towards the Great Satan choking the Straits of Hormuz, not towards the Mullahs.  With so many unknown-unknowns out there, Brewer-the-friendly-libertarian is really saying that the United States should "abandon its attempts to act as policeman for the world and avoid entangling alliances" because "free trade with all nations is a time-honored prescription for an America that is at peace with the world."

"A boycott that would actually improve border security would be to boycott illegal drugs. Dramatically less drug use and production would do wonders for the safety of all our communities."     

Undoubtedly true!  However, when people are willing to pay rhodium prices for a gram or two of an easily concealable substance, it becomes unlikely that 1) people will voluntarily stop buying that substance, and 2) people will voluntarily stop profiting from its trade.  The Arizona Libertarian Party goes rhetorical: "If the government can't even keep drugs out of prison, how can it keep them out of an entire nation?  The simple answer is: it can't."  Desultory Eclecticism admires Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's political courage to come right out and say "Legalize it!" and will be rooting for her in-state Phoenix Los Suns throughout the remainder of the playoffs.  

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Finding Lost Time

Click on movie before reading on.

If you did not grow up in Michigan, then you did not spend the last 9 minutes 56 seconds in a gray '86 Buick LeSabre listening to AM 850 on your way to Meijers.  If you did, then Desultory Eclecticism hopes you enjoyed your Proustian moment too.

Farewell, Ernie Harwell. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

DAM it

Desultory Eclecticism is not wont to facilely surrender his physical movements to the rhythmic intoxication of any music whatsoever, making concert attendance a socially awkward displeasure to be avoided at most costs.  He regrets letting this get the best of him last Friday night.  DAM was in town, all the way from Lyd, Israel, and as usual Foreign Policy has the story.  Desultory Eclecticism first became acquainted with the group when his '48 Palestinian Arabic professor, arriving to a Friday morning class a few minutes late, appeased us by popping in a DVD.  A clip from Friday night's concert (featuring a handful of Arab groups--the DAM guys aren't the ones with the British accents) is posted below, and you can read the lyrics here.  DAM's first big hit--"Who's the terrorist?"--follows.  As with--DISCRETION ADVISED!--Immortal Technique (and, hard as it is to concede, possibly even Glenn Beck) you don't have to agree entirely with the platform in order to appreciate the discussion and the delivery.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


State-owned Russia Today has an inherent bias (despite the lovely British anchors), but no one else has posted a story set in so much context.  The quid pro quo here is a little nebulous, and closer ties with the white oppressor from the north rightfully makes many Ukrainians leery.  Let's also remember: Ukraine is in its first decade of democratic self-rule.  In our second decade of democratic self-rule, a sitting Vice President shot dead a former Treasury Secretary in a duel to resolve the latter's insult of "Cataline!"  Yulia Tymoshenko can be a bit of a sore loser, but she also knows how to work a sympathetic crowd.  Desultory Eclecticism's best guess is that sympathy for her is diminishing, and stunts like this, while popular in an ever-shrinking circle of Western supporters, do more to sully than support the nationalist cause.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Go West (Bank), Young Man!

"Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be a genuine doubt about the most enormous events...The calamities that are constantly being reported — battles, massacres, famines, revolutions — tend to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One has no way of verifying the facts, one is not even fully certain that they have happened, and one is always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources...Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied...Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world."
--Geroge Orwell, from "Notes on Nationalism" (1945)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Holiday

Desultory Eclecticism first became acquainted with one of its favorite holidays just last year while working in Honduras.  In commemoration of the deaths of Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare (a happy coincidence between the Julian and Gregorain calendars places each demigod's death on April 23 even though they were separated by a few days in Kantian time), and as an addendum to the St. George's Day tradition that compels men to buy roses for their significant others, women are to reciprocate with a book.

Desultory Eclecticism recommends Mikhail Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog.  So inappropriately-titled a gift is sure to precipitate an awkward exchange between you and your significant other as he probes for the symbolic insult you must have intended.  The resulting hours spent in separate rooms cooling off should allow him to get through the book's first few chapters, which chronicle Sharik's heartwarming rise from anti-proletarian stray mutt to Bolshevik cat-catcher in post-Revolutionary Moscow.  

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Still Not Back in the USSR

“We have opened a new page in relations,” Mr. Yanukovich said at a news conference in Kharkiv, in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, where the agreement was signed...
...“I haven’t been a guest here for a long time,” Mr. Medvedev told them. “It’s nice that it has taken place at last. We have just signed documents that are very important for both Ukraine and Russia. They will strengthen our friendship and our brotherhood for a long time to come.” 

Highlighting the Russified elements of today's basing agreement, Clifford Levy portrays a Ukraine drifting east.  помедленнее!  Slow down.  Kiev is still a largely Russian-speaking city.  Kharkiv, near the Russian border, is also unsurprisingly Russophone.  Stop by a village in Kharkivska Oblast though, and you'll hear Ukrainian on the street.  What this has to do with basing rights in Crimea is beyond me.  Today's agreement may be symbolically important, but, as former Foreign Minister and Presidential 3rd runner-up Arseniy Yatsenyuk points out, that's all it is:

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former Ukrainian foreign minister, said Mr. Yanukovich had no right under Ukraine’s Constitution to extend the lease. “For now, it’s just paper,” Mr. Yatsenyuk said of the deal. “The fact of its signing has no legal significance.” 

Yes, Viktor Yanukovich is more friendly to Moscow than Viktor Yushchenko; he is also shorter than Manute Bol and slower than Usain Bolt.  When it became clear--four years ago--that Mr. Yushchenko was a lame duck President, it also became clear that his successor was bound to shift Ukraine's geopolitical orientation a few degrees north-east.  While Citizen Yanukovich's history demands that his overtures to Moscow be heavily scrutinized, today's events are proof of nothing.  The basing agreement is not a surprise, but rather a small symbolic price to pay for reliable winter heating.  Despite the comments on Korrespondent's message board ("@#$%& зэк и маму продаст" ..; translation: @#$%& convict would sell out his own mother...), let's wait for the Victory Day reunification announcement before proclaiming the resurrection of The Evil Empire.     

Friday, April 9, 2010

Not In the News

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Big Bang Treaty
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

UPDATE/Clarification: Iran is a signatory to the NPT, but was judged to be in non-compliance in 2006; North Korea withdrew its signature from the treaty in 2003.

John Stewart asks how, despite the above, Fox could possibly boast the largest viewership of any cable news network.  The answer is not difficult to find.  As this was going on...

Bishkek spreads from the center through grid streets studded with the carcasses of destroyed buildings -- establishments and homes of Bakiyev's family and those of the unlucky -- that mobs and opposition supporters have been ransacking since the insurrection struck. A charred casino, cards fluttering in the wind, is now a pile of smashed boards and unidentifiable, smouldering embers. Supermarkets have been gutted, leaving empty white-walled spaces and overturned freezers, dangling ripped-out wiring and defaced walls. Looters have been making off with anything they can carry.
"We are with the people" has been daubed on the grilled or barricaded shop fronts by those hoping words will keep rioters away. Petrol stations have been smashed to pieces. A few thieves are still ruffling in the wreckage. Everywhere the malevolent glints of broken glass and the swirl of rumors.
...CNN's homepage featured a story about a perfectly nice young lady who helps donate books to charity.  That's all good and well, but Desultory Eclecticism was occupied with the journalistic coverage of breaking news over at AlJazeera.  While Fox News has found its large, easily-caricatured niche, MSNBC demands a significantly smaller, albeit similarly caricaturable niche.  Left-leaning news outlets seem oblivious to the fact that their natural clientele is composed of educated, thinking information seekers, the sorts of people who prefer in-depth coverage of the recent events in Krgyzstan to Tiger Woods Masters updates (you can't beat ESPN).  That's why Desultory Eclecticism's homepage is not CNN, but AlJazeera English.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter!

It is disturbing to see Marc Thiessen making a nice living off of talking points and tortured logic.  It is more disturbing to see that a major American newspaper finds him to be anything other than a curiosity.  In our Federalist 10 world, the wall separating economics from ethical philosophy is built on more than obscure correspondence; remuneration goes to goods and services that others are willing to pay for, not necessarily for those that are good.  Where one man sees a delusional niche, another sees comparative advantage.  This is not to question the integrity of certain arguments so much as to acknowledge the propensity of people to actually believe anything that their salary/salvation/peace of mind/SUV depends on.  Thiessen's extended Daily Show interview provides a more complete primer than the one Desultory Eclecticism copies and pastes below:

The late William Kunstler was once asked by Andy McCarthy why he never represented clients on the right with whose views he disagreed. Kunstler replied: “They have a right to an attorney, but they don’t have a right to ME.”
Kunstler chose his clients based on his values. And so do the lawyers working with his organization to represent al-Qaeda terrorists.  

Perhaps unfairly moving away from Thiessen's own words to address a Thiessen talking point that rivals his al-Qaeda sympathizer insinuation...pull:

Based on lessons learned from survivors of the brutal North Korean and North Vietnam torture of US military prisoners of war, the Department of Defense ordered all branches of the services to implement comprehensive Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (S.E.R.E.) training programs...
...Now, let’s see Congress: Maybe forty or so students per week, let’s say 100 minimum per month, 1,200 per year for over twenty or thirty years? It could be as many as 40,000 students trained in S.E.R.E. and “tortured” at the direction of, and under the watchful eye of the Congressional Majorities on both sides of the aisle. Be careful that the 40,000 of us who you have “tortured” don’t come after you today with tort claims. I heard it pays about $3 million per claim. 

If the technique is derived from the accounts of servicemen who were tortured by the North Koreans and Vietcong, and if it is used to train airmen and special forces soldiers at high risk of future capture to resist torture, doesn't that suggest that administering the procedure 183 times might qualify as torture?  What about 100? 10? 1?

Last autumn, Desultory Eclecticism attended a Columbia University conference on post-election Iran.  Panelist Maziar Bahari talked about his masked interrogator's self-proclaimed humanity: 'you have seen the barbarities that the Americans commit at Abu Ghraib; here in Iran we do not photograph you naked with other men.'  Bahari suggested that perhaps the Americans, newcomers to torture, had not yet refined the technique, that this inexperience relegated them to the bungling crudity of Lynndie England while Iran's neo-SAVAK secret police combined psychological deconstruction with periodic beatings.  Unfortunately, "Rosewater" was behind on his history; we have come far enough over the last eight years that the former Vice President can advocate waterboarding on national television and respected intellectuals can abandon epistemological sanity:

On Oct. 9, 1994, Israeli Cpl. Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car. He was interrogated with methods so brutal that they violated Israel's existing 1987 interrogation guidelines, which themselves were revoked in 1999 by the Israeli Supreme Court as unconscionably harsh. The Israeli prime minister who ordered this enhanced interrogation (as we now say) explained without apology: "If we'd been so careful to follow the [1987] Landau Commission [guidelines], we would never have found out where Waxman was being held."
Who was that prime minister? Yitzhak Rabin, Nobel Peace laureate. 

The above passage elucidates two points of interest.  First, Krauthammer is apparently conceding that, at least by the standards of a government that takes tacit credit for sloppily executed assassinations, "enhanced interrogation" may in fact include "methods so brutal that they violated...existing...guidelines."  Second, persons, places, things, ideas--nouns really, but possibly some verbs and an occasional adjective as well--are either good, or bad.  Yitzhak Rabin was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for making a fairly reasonable deal with the PLO, therefore...therefore what?  Does Krauthammer understand that a reasonable chunk of the thinking American left--along with an idiot fringe--criticizes Nobel laureate Barack Obama for the continued existence of Guantanamo Bay prison, that people are inconsistent and complicated, than Nobel laureates sometimes kill flies and commit comma splices?  In his interview on the Daily Show, Mark Thiessen protests that "liberal darling" F.B.I. interrogator Ali Soufan employed methods that Abu Zubayda himself deemed more harsh than some of the latter "enhanced techniques" that the C.I.A. tested on him.  Yes, and...? Anti-torture interrogators are sometimes still rough?  Liberal's condone violence too?  Waterboarding is okay because Ali Soufan is not the messiah (Happy Easter!)?  What's the sequitur here?       

Perhaps similarly tortured logic holds an equally prominent place on the left and Desultory Eclecticism is simply oblivious to it.  As alluded to earlier, there are plenty of liberal idiots.  Their straw man arguments are easily refuted by sensible conservatives like David Frum and are rightly ridiculed and wrongly assumed to be representative by cheerleaders like Sean Hannity (tangent: one of Desultory Eclecticism's prospective D.C.-based brain surgeons was genuinely frightened by this "documentary" in the run-up to the 2008 election).  Keith Olberman may be an openly partisan jackass (and the greatest Sportscenter anchor of all time), but he at least seems to do his homework.  If there is a prominent, influential left-wing nut to rival Glenn Beck, Desultory Eclecticism has not found her.               

Monday, March 29, 2010

Mission to Moscow

Islamist radicals from the North Caucasus are nearly always at the top of the list of suspects when a bomb causes death and destruction in Russia.  All the more so, when the attack is carried out by female suicide bombers.  Guerrillas fighting to separate the republic of Chechnya from Russia adopted the suicide bombing tactic for the first time in 2000.  In 2002, women were members of the group that held a Moscow theatre audience hostage, until the building was gassed and stormed by security forces, with huge loss of life.  They were dressed in veils and bandanas that indicated their readiness to die in battle, and the following year came the first attacks by female suicide bombers...
...The question of why these women have been prepared to take their own lives in order to kill others has been given a partial explanation.  Two of the women who joined the Moscow theatre siege are reported to have been sisters seized from their homes in a Chechen village by Russian soldiers and gang-raped.  Over the past 14 years, Russian soldiers have left a trail of destruction in Chechnya that is psychological as well as physical.  Countless women have been widowed, or lost sons, brothers or fathers. Those who have been raped may find it impossible to marry and live a normal life.  Post-traumatic stress disorder is reported to be widespread among Chechen women.

Some have also argued that extremism has been strengthened by the actions of our coalition in Iraq, claiming that our presence in that country has somehow caused or triggered the rage of radicals. I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001 -- and al Qaeda attacked us anyway. The hatred of the radicals existed before Iraq was an issue, and it will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse. The government of Russia did not support Operation Iraqi Freedom, and yet the militants killed more than 180 Russian schoolchildren in Beslan.

So terrorism did not begin with the Coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it has not spared even those who opposed said invasion.  Shocking to learn that the world doesn't obey the syllogisms you invent to explain it, no?  While Bush is right that "we were not in Iraq on September the 11th" (the justification for that attack had been the corrupting presence of U.S. forces in the unholy state that happens to contain the holy cities of Mecca and Medina), and that "Russia did not support Operation Iraqi Freedom," his lengthy speech betrays less complexity than a page-long BBC article.  

Operation Iraqi Freedom has contributed to anti-American radicalization worldwide, though likely less so than the localized effects of errant bombs, raids, and incarcerations in Iraq and Afghanistan themselves.  The idiocies of Abu Ghraib and the cruelties of Guantanamo's Room 101 contributed too, as did IDF blockades and invasions of Gaza.  Not all of the catalysts are exogenous: repression, unemployment, and unequal divisions of wealth in the rabidly-secular dictatorships of the Middle East (and in authoritarian, officially-Wahhabi Saudi Arabia) are key factors, factors that W. Bush, to his credit, was actually addressing at the time of his syllogized speech in October 2005.  In a human-all-too-human world, "the hatred of the radicals...will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse."

Desultory Eclecticism has been struggling with the emergence of conservative publicist Marc Thiessen as a legitimate voice in the national debate (see Jane Mayer deconstruct him here).  Pleading Marcus of Queensbury legalisms while employing an immoral, self-destructive adherence to the letter-of-the-law-as-interpreted-by-John-Yoo-and-Jay-Bybee, Thiessen uses blunt, fight-makes-right, Cheneyist, chicken-hawk rhetoric to hammer the testicular weaknesses imperiling Barack Obama's America.  The idiocy of torture has been fairly well established.  Without the coerced confessions of Ibn Shaikh al-Libi, W. Bush would have had a much more difficult time convincing the media establishment of the absolute necessity of the invasion that, as he so insightfully points out, did not (contrary to no one's belief) create the jihadist movement or supply its sole raison d'etre.  

The Manichaean epistemology that equates torture with safety and jihad with Iraq informs the same worldview that links communism with healthcare, healthcare with Obama, and thus Obama with future gulags.  In the past it allowed Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese communists to be lumped together into an evil, monolithic conspiracy.  Today it conflates IEDs in Iraq with suicide bombs on the Moscow metro.  Russian armies and governments already have decades of Chechen blood on their leather gloves, and the innocent victims of this mornings attacks are suffering for it.  Reprisals are sure to follow, and Chechen radicals are sure to respond.  Simplified explanations will continue to use euphemisms like "reprisals" in place of "bombing," "torture," and "rape," and "Islamist" will continue to encompass the same broad, undefined threat that "Communist" once did.  The innocent blood in the metro cries out for vengeance-begetting vengeance, but it cannot solve an old problem.  The sound and fury will come to nothing.  Unknown-unknowns will continue to spoil the syllogism.          

A Russian once spent 1300 pages threshing out some of this:

As the sun and each atom of ether is a sphere complete in itself, and yet at the same time only a part of a whole too immense for man to comprehend, so each individual has within himself his own aims and yet has them to serve a general purpose incomprehensible to man.

A bee settling on a flower has stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and declares that bees exist to sting people. A poet admires the bee sucking from the chalice of a flower and says it exists to suck the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, seeing the bee collect pollen from flowers and carry it to the hive, says that it exists to gather honey. Another beekeeper who has studied the life of the hive more closely says that the bee gathers pollen dust to feed the young bees and rear a queen, and that it exists to perpetuate its race. A botanist notices that the bee flying with the pollen of a male flower to a pistil fertilizes the latter, and sees in this the purpose of the bee's existence. Another, observing the migration of plants, notices that the bee helps in this work, and may say that in this lies the purpose of the bee. But the ultimate purpose of the bee is not exhausted by the first, the second, or any of the processes the human mind can discern. The higher the human intellect rises in the discovery of these purposes, the more obvious it becomes, that the ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension.

All that is accessible to man is the relation of the life of the bee to other manifestations of life. And so it is with the purpose of historic characters and nations.         
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, First Epilogue, Chapter IV

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Belated Happy Birthday to Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev's birthday, it arbitrarily turns out, fell last week.  Desultory Eclecticism features him today because 1) Gorbachev had an op-ed published in the Sunday Times 2) Desultory Eclecticism was recently reminded of a relic from the early post-Communist past 3) Desultory Eclecticism has been too busy to provide you with its usual probing analytic insights and just needed to throw something together.  Promises of better stuff to come this week.

An excerpt from the Times op-ed, which provides some nice first-hand context for Russia 25 years after Перестройка (perestroika for the less pretentious):

...What were our goals, what did we want to achieve? We came a long way in a short time — moving from trying to repair the existing system to recognizing the need to replace it. Yet I always adhered to my choice of evolutionary change — moving deliberately so that we would not break the backs of the people and the country and would avoid bloodshed.

While the radicals pushed us to move faster, the conservatives stepped on our toes. Both groups must bear most of the blame for what happened afterward. I accept my share of responsibility as well. We, the reformers, made mistakes that cost us, and our country, dearly.

Our main mistake was acting too late to reform the Communist Party. The party had initiated perestroika, but it soon became a hindrance to our moving forward...

And a relic from the ensuing chaos of the Yeltsin years (extra context: 
Desultory Eclecticism recalls this commercial airing during the seminal tragedy of the 20th Century):

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Desultory Eclecticism Readers in the News

Desultory Eclecticism is not a personal blog; however, some first-personish narrative is necessary for today's post.  Desultory Eclecticism has spent a reasonably significant portion of its recent past in Ukraine.  It has some friends there.  It grabbed an early morning beer with one of them on a visit to Kiev in early January.  A few weeks later, a new issue of The New Yorker arrived in the mail.  Desultory Eclecticism put the magazine in its bag for later subway reading.  It came across an article about the recent Ukrainian Presidential elections and began to read...

"...A young man named Sergey showed me around..."

Desultory Eclecticism thought, "I know a young man named Sergey."

"...Sergey, it turned out, was the [Yushchenko campaign] press center's Ukrainian language copy editor. 'I have perfect Ukrainian, which is very rare,' he said..."

Desultory Eclecticism thought, "Sergey said something about working in the press office of the Yushchenko campaign over morning beers last month.  And he does speak Ukrainian."

"...In non-election times, Sergey is a translator of foreign films and TV shows.  He did the entire Ukrainian run of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and also several episodes of "Miami Vice," which helped explain his handsome two-day growth of beard..."

Desultory Eclecticism thought, "I remember a former student of mine telling me that her brother worked in Kiev translating English-language media into Ukrainian.  I also remember that this brother of a former student is the very Sergey who said over morning beers last month that he had a new job working in the press office of the Yushchenko campaign.  And this Sergey often goes days at a time without shaving."

"...[Sergey] invited me to the tiny two-bedroom apartment he shared with a couple of old friends, both named Sasha, in a decrepit Brezhnev-era apartment on the east side of the Dnieper.  We drank beers until four in the morning..."

Desultory Eclecticism thought, "I know a Sergey who works for the Yushchenko campaign, translates English media into Ukrainian, likes beer, and lives in a Brezhnev-era apartment on the east side of the Dneiper with two old friends, but the apartment is bigger than mine, and one of the friends is not called Sasha, but 'Galanich'.  Ah, perhaps they call him 'Galanich' because having two 'Sashas' around would get too confusing.  No, no, something here just doesn't add up."

"...I had met people like Sergey, who felt themselves pulled toward Europe and the West ("You've seen the film 'The Secret.'  You haven't seen 'The Secret'? What do you mean you haven't seen 'The Secret'?)..."

Desultory Eclecticism thought, "I'll have to write Sergey an email and tell him he's famous."

Congratulations, Serogia!