Tuesday, August 28, 2012

'The Chap' Gets It Right

As everyone in the world now knows, Lance Armstrong has run afoul of the laser-like attentions of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Travis Tygart, who looks and (unfortunately) acts like a lawyer, is probably the most hated person in the country just now, and not without reason. The statute of limitations for doping violations under the World Anti-Doping Agency code is eight years, but USADA contends that past years of organized doping by various cycling teams should give the agency leeway to convict for older offenses, perhaps as far back as the six-day races of 1893. 

  Travis Tygart

And since USADA is neither required nor inclined to allow its accused the normal legal protocols under due process, Armstrong never knew the precise nature of whatever evidence was gathered against him. In any case, USADA has managed to shift Armstrong's Tour de France titles onto the likes of Jan Ulrich, who in 2006 (the year following Armstrong's retirement) was expected to win the Tour until he was suspended by the UCI in another doping scandal, then decided to retire, and had his record vacated from 2005 onwards. (Bjarne Riis, who won the 1996 Tour, admitted in 2007 that he had doped. Nonetheless, Riis's victory was officially "reconfirmed.")

While the sporting community in the United States is currently busy parsing this tortuous episode, our English cousins have adopted a lighter, more sanguine approach to athletic competition. The Chap, which bills itself a "satirical magazine for modern gentlemen," has just this July instanter concluded its London 2012 Chap Olympiad, the magazine's eighth annual "celebration of athletic ineptitude and immaculate trouser creases."


The event preserves some of the hallmarks of Monty Python's "127th Upper Class Twit of the Year Event," which always rewards another viewing. Following the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic pipe, onlookers in Bedford Square Gardens, Bloomsbury, London WC1, were treated to two days of nattily clad athletes engaged in standard gentlemen's events such as the pipe smokers' relay, the cucumber sandwich discus, hop-skip-g&t, and umbrella jousting.

New events - butler racing, swooning, and synchronised slippages - were executed with an astonishing "breadth of imagination, applomb [sic] and inebriated skullduggery." Following each event, the magazine further notes, "Exhausted Olympians were stretcher-borne to the Gin Tent, topped up with panache-saving Bloody Marys fed from blood bags."

Umbrella joust

And if that isn't doping, I don't know an aquascutum from an aspidistra. The astute reader will have remarked that no amount of doping will ever improve attempts to joust with the outside hand, as in the photo. Still, it boggles the mind how an entire segment of the British male populace can suppose that propriety in attire and a correctly constructed cocktail can stand in for the competitive spirit, but there you have it. I hope you're happy, Bertie Wooster.

Cucumber sandwich discus

It seems the postcolonial Brit may be taking these matters in the right spirit. But like any delicate flower, I'm not certain it exports all that well - I mean, tear up a fellow's tweeds by the roots and transplant them, they begin to suffer from the incongruity. It's what in the U.S. we call Portland.

Monday, August 27, 2012

At the Barricades

This week, as he does each August, my neighbor Zeno organized what he calls a block party along our short cul de sac of la Rue de Montaigne. Each August the neighbors close off the end of our dead-end half block of street with makeshift barricades - derelict two-by-fours strung between battered folding chairs - all in the best traditions of French socialism. The capitalist hirelings of the municipality will barricade the street for the occasion, but only at considerable cost - the cost, in fact, of choosing an entrepreneurial government over a benignly socialist one. One of libertarianism's fondest myths being that a tax dollar saved is another dollar safe in its wallet.

 Barricade, Rue de Montaigne

Each August my neighbor Zeno solicits, and I politely decline, my email address so he can send a sign-up list to volunteers willing to provide the requisites of his revelries - the music, tables and chairs, barbecued meat, beer, potato salad, green salad, watermelon, etc. Each August he inquires whether I will join the neighborhood festivities and I gently demur. It is a ritual between us by now. Why not? he invariably asks.

Les autres sont l'infer, I tell him.Other people are hell.

Les Autres

No, but these are your neighbors, he answers, the ritual tone of mild shock in his voice. You know them all, you like them - at least you seem to. I like them all just fine, I admit, and am always pleased to greet them en passant from the car window or from the other side of the street. That is what neighborliness means in the providential dispensation of all things social. It's nothing personal, I say, merely a constitutional aversion.

To your own neighbors? asks Zeno in a stage horror. To crowds in general, I reply. One of several reasons I don't golf or ski, I remind him. Oh, but you really should come, he insists, seeing at the outset the dead end. Zeno, I tell him kindly, at my age I don't feel obliged to do anything that falls beyond the easiest of my few inclinations.

Zeno is never entirely satisfied with my quietism but he bears up and takes it all in his stride. We are always cordial if a bit nonplussed by the other. No, but come on, what better thing do you have to do anyway, he asks? A book, I always reply. I'm in the middle of Spinoza, can't put him down. But it was Spinoza last year, says Zeno. He bears rereading, I answer.

My neighbors Zeno and Conchita
 
Je suis desolée, mon vieux, says Zeno each August. Rubbish, old chap, I reply. Truly, he insists. Not a bit of it, I answer him. Persiflage heaped upon parody, August upon August.

Soon enough the neighborhood is suffused with the toxic aroma of barbecue. The murmur on the street beyond the east lawn of the chateau gradually increases. Someone has turned up the country music, or maybe it's rockabilly, on the boom box, these "genres" demarcating the frontiers of cultural abandon in this precinct. Neighbors assemble in the street in full view of the resident dogs, unaccountably abandoned in their respective yards, unstinting in their own sense of desolation and general consternation.

By about ten-thirty when the shriekings of the children begin to subside and the smell of burning marshmallows to laden the air, I am invariably prostré, recumbent, in bed with Spinoza when the mistress returns from the revels. I had a wonderful time, she always beams. And I invariably tell her that in my view it has all been a roaring success.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Seeding the Electorate

What with the 21st century American demographic turning a deeper shade of pale tending to brown, the dwindling supply of old fat white people must increasingly rely on a special providence to preserve whatever upper hand they can wrest from the recalcitrant mob. A superior strategy is called for - if the democratic will doesn't in every case support your divinely apportioned ascendancy, then things will have to be better managed.

So Republican-led state houses and Republican attorneys general press for "voter fraud" safeguards to preserve the integrity of the electoral process from abuses which, as repeated statistical analysis shows, occur in negligible percentages - in about 0.0009 percent in an average election. States like Alabama now have a "Voter Fraud Unit" administered by the Secretary of State, where the conscientious citizen can report suspected cases. Still, it's a strategy of sorts - for the short term, at any rate, a stopgap to prevent voters making mistakes until a more permanent solution can be found.

 Average voter (photo ID)

I think the Republicans have found their long term insurance policy in the "personhood" plank of their 2012 campaign platform. "We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children." (The Fourteenth Amendment, as any streetcorner constitutional scholar can tell you, defines U. S. citizenship, insures due process and equal protection under the laws.)

 "Oh shit! A voter."

This personhood business may appear to the politically naive as just another sop to the Republican evangelical base. It has little chance (as yet) of becoming an amendment to the Constitution, such measures having been defeated in state elections in (for example) Mississippi, Missouri and Colorado (twice).  But these things have a way of changing, and with a little persistence from the political front, white people may come to recognize their best interests, if not their better lights.

Republican doctors, geneticists and creation scientists are all agreed that the discredited notion of the male "seed" as the progenitor of life is in fact a correct picture of how human reproduction occurs. The sperm is, as medieval medicos from Galen to Paracelsus surmised, a homunculus - a complete human being in miniature, with all the organs, appendages, faculties and capacities of its eventual maturity intact, if a bit dormant. It is a tiny person simply waiting to be stashed for safekeeping in any compliant or convenient womb. All that's needed is to wait until the little bugger grows large enough to hold a handgun. The loaf in the oven remains as apt a metaphor as ever. 

And from the moment of its origin it is miraculously endowed with a soul, which has merely been waiting in the wings on a little wooden folding chair in a reversal of Mormon hell, not to be baptized and shuttled off to paradise, but to be embodied in a registered voter and gun owner.

Your basic proto-Republican homunculus

A population of fertile women is to the GOP what a fish hatchery is to an angler. Countless homunculi will come to parturition under the Constitutional protections afforded by a forward thinking Republican party. Having once attained the age of reason, they will inevitably make the simple causal calculation that but for the GOP their very existence might have been a tenuous and brief affair. Left to marauding bands of Democratic abortion doctors unleashed on a doctrinally pure populace in some Hobbesean state of nature, democracy itself might have proven but a tender flower easily crushed. We just need to make certain the right people vote.

 "Someday I'll be a registered Republican."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Guns and Cheese

"Guns and butter" refers to the economic calculation a (more or less) developed nation must make about where it draws the budgetary line on expenditures for international security of its borders versus outlays for the security and domestic comfort of its citizens. I have a new metric, however - I replace butter with cheese. Guns and cheese is the new calculation.


One of this country's principal exports, something we still manufacture at home and which the current administration hopes will go some way towards balancing a hopeless trade deficit, is arms of all sorts. It appears that we've increasingly been selling American-made firearms to pretty much anyone who can afford them. On the theory that the country has to get back into the business of making and selling stuff people want, it's the obvious thing. We make so many of them and people seem to want them.

Last May, Salon reported that, "Though the Homeland Security and Justice Departments say the new [export] rules could make it easier for terrorist and drug cartels to further arm themselves, the White House is nonetheless citing the 'stuff' theory of exports to ignore the objections . . . . During Obama’s first year in the White House, he began to gut the Pentagon’s approval process for arms exports, weakening controls on what could and could not be sold. Later, diplomatic cables uncovered by WikiLeaks showed, as Fortune magazine put it, 'American officials act[ing] as de facto pitchmen for U.S.-made weapons.'"

What red-blooded patriot could object to this brisk international business in fair-trade arms? If Guatemala can export fair-trade coffee and fair-trade native textiles, then we should be able to export our own native handicrafts on an open market. It's a windfall for the national GNP, and if anyone needs a boost now it's the good old U.S.of A. You need a tank, Vladimir? We got plenty.


And it isn't as though, if we export the things, we don't get to keep enough for ourselves. They're notoriously easy to get, and with 300 million rifles, handguns and shotguns in the country it's not like we're going to run out soon. But it seems that the White House should play fair with its own citizens when it comes to the things we can freely trade guns for. We ship weapons around the world now, either through military alliances or just commercial operations. And in turn we can buy arms from anywhere - Russian, Israeli, Korean, Chinese - you name it we probably have untold caches of them in citizen arsenals all over American basementhood.

"Comrade Kalashnikov"

My main hesitation here is that I don't really want a gun and I don't care to up our import quotas in that department. But there are some imported things I'm not allowed to get my hands on, and some other things that aren't imported but I'm still not allowed to have them. I'm starting to feel the rub - it seems like if you just refuse your God-given right of gun ownership in this country, you get Zimmerman-ed one way or the other.

Here's a case in point: Twenty-one states ban the sale of raw milk. Some states permit its sale in stores, while others only allow it to be purchased directly from farms - and then only in small quantities. Raw milk may harm me and I am privileged by my citizenship to be sheltered from such wanton dairy-borne mayhem. Big deal, I hear you say. Raw milk. It's not the milk I'm after, however, it's the raw milk cheese. I'm not legally permitted to buy cheese from France, let's say, or Spain, if it's made with raw milk. (And once you've tasted cheese from raw milk, you never go back. It's like converting from Christianity to Islam - you're forever lost to your better lights.)

Fromage by any other name is just Velveeta

While we're on the subject of imported foods, there's the question of haggis, the quintessentially Scotch concoction of sheep's offal. It's a safe guess that any recipe beginning "Wash, dress and clean thoroughly one sheep's stomach . . . ." ends up contraband in this land of triglycerides.  I'll be the first to admit that if it were legal I wouldn't touch it with your hands, but it's the principle of the thing after all. It can't be worse for you than a Daylight Donut, which is pretty much a nutritional benchmark.

They can make it, but they can't make it pretty

There are, however, some comestibles that I legally cannot get but do want. I'm not talking about foie gras - it's hard on the goose I understand, so I can live without it. But what about absinthe, the fin-de-siecle French version of medical marijuana. Turns out that it is not legally to be had in these United States if it contains wormwood. And absinthe without wormwood is like a grenade launcher with no grenades. Why self-lobotomize if you're just going to wake up and remember everything clearly?


By itself, sitting in its little glass, it looks harmless enough, but the wormwood is the stuff that carries it off, makes it an otherworldly experience, I'm told. Absinthe, like ouzo and Pernod, turns a milky white when cut with water, as in the glass on the table before the young cafe patroness below. You can tell by the lady's eyes that she has suffered permanent transfiguration and will be none the worse for it in memory.

"L'absinthe" (Degas)

What's more, I can't legally travel to Cuba . . . 


. . .  nor can I have in my possession a Cuban cigar.


Given that the elfin Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has refused to take our last few Presidents with the seriousness their fundamental gravitas requires, and that we are in some mysterious way beholden to the nesting mania of the Israeli nation where the West Bank is concerned, I can never lawfully acquire a Persian carpet.


But I can own one of these things with less ID than it now takes to vote in Pennsylvania and Florida.



For that matter, one of these is pretty much all the voter ID you need to vote in Florida. Freedom's just another word for nuthin' left to shoot.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The South Will Rise Again (Part 2)

The newly liberated South of the New Confederacy will overnight discover itself sovereign, unencumbered by federal highway funds; free of meddling strictures on the uses of a natural world intended by a far-sighted Creator to be subjugated; permitted to circumscribe by local jurisdiction such matters as civil rights, the limit and extent of suffrage, the nature of crime and the severity of punishment; free to define by constitutional amendment, in concert with fervent public prayer, the confines of citizenship, marriage, even personhood.

The South is already replete with cultural and educational destinations: Kentucky boasts the Creation Museum, where actual dioramas prove that humans played and coexisted with dinosaurs; while in Dallas, visit the Museum of Creation and Earth History, where you can actually visit a lifelike Garden of Eden and have everything pretty much laid out for you with modern science - no, sorry, make that modern signs . . .

 Garden of Eden

The Museum of the Confederacy boasts three sites in Virginia (hint: when visiting the museum, never refer to them as "Union soldiers" - say "Federals"); the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, named, like the George W. Bush Presidential Library, for someone who was not actually elected to the office. And there's the "Worlds [sic] Famous Redneck Shop and KKK Museum" in Laurens, South Carolina, housed in an old movie theater that is owned, as it turns out, by a local black church, where 2008 presidential candidate and neo-Nazi John Taylor Bowles housed his campaign headquarters. There's the New South for you, progressive, ecumenical, and less than a century behind the times.

Meanwhile, in order to preserve this cultural birthright in the absence of a federal Department of Education, local communities and thousands of megachurches will not be behindhand in formulating their own educational guidelines and tailoring them to their specific local manias. (The Bob Jones University Press will prove a bottomless source of the finest reeducation materials. And best of all, it's already Southern.) The first matter of business will of necessity be - not the evisceration of the evil Darwin, which will have to take the back of this bus - but rather an extensive reeducation program in which the old, yet somehow freshly appealing, institution of slavery is reframed as Christian solicitude for our weaker brethren. From a textbook approved for use in Bobby Jindal's home state we learn that "A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well." (United States History for Christian Schools, 2nd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 1991)

 "No, son, it isn't legal. But your Daddy's a tolerably kind man."

And what can the new citizens of the republic tell their young ones about the friendly faces at the Klan meeting? Well, "The Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians." (United States History for Christian Schools, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2001) Heretofore, I never thought it possible that "a certain respectability" could be used in any sentence in which "worked with politicians" also appears. But there you have it - and what do I know, after all?

 "Will y'all be to home this evenin'?"

As far as that pesky mathematics goes, ABeka Book assures teachers that "Unlike the 'modern math' theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute…A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory." (ABeka.com)  Those "funny numbers" elicited in support of Obamacare are another work of the Anti-Christ. The numbers God's Big Pencil came up with look like this:


I suspect the New Order of cultural isolationists resident in the Hookworm Belt will not be making a splash in international relations, nor be elevated to anyone's list of Preferred Trading Partners any time soon. Globalization may not be the answer for any but a committed capitalist, and it may for all I know be the devil's own work. But then who would believe in an actual Devil (if you see what I mean) if he keeps you out of the game entirely? As ABeka Book puts it so tersely: "[I]nstead of this world unification ushering in an age of prosperity and peace, as most globalists believe it will, it will be a time of unimaginable human suffering as recorded in God's Word. The Anti-christ will tightly regulate who may buy and sell." (Economics: Work and Prosperity in Christian Perspective, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1999) That old inside trader, I always knew he was no good.

 "Southern Methodist over Texas Christian by a field goal - and go big."

And while we're fixing things, it occurs to me that we're not using North Dakota or Alaska much. They could have them too.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The South Will Rise Again (Part 1)

The American South may be defined in numberless ways, depending on which of its riches, emoluments and blandishments one wishes to accentuate or hopes to appreciate. It is a place of legend and lyricism, a kingdom of deep mystery, pre-Raphaelitic beauty and ancient valor. A noble land, a fairied past, if you'll permit that last turn of phrase.

Southern Fairy
 
To my mind the South is at once:
1. The contiguous original states of the Confederacy, all situate south of the Mason-Dixon line and including Texas
2. A cultural region in which states rights, a Christian theocracy and the social ascendancy of genteel white people are all of paramount and equal importance as part of the providential furniture with which the Supreme Being has favored his children
3. A cultural region, not necessarily contiguous, for which a beneficent Creator inscribed in his own fair hand and personally handed in, a divinely authored Constitution guaranteeing his children all rights, appurtenances, tenancies, socages and villeinages, access to firearms and duty-free liquor
4. Wherever cheerleading is considered a sport
5. Wherever Bud Light is proudly served
6. Mostly Texas

I had often wondered, in my youthful studies in history and civics, to whom the idea first appeared as sound policy that the Confederate States of America should be dissuaded from living its dream, hindered in its noble experiment. Who first whispered the errant notion in Mr. Lincoln's ear? I always suspected it was one of his obstreperous cabinet - probably Stanton, secretary of war at the time of the Secession and doubtless skulking in the corridors of power slavering like a wolf for a chance of gainful employment. No matter, the Union was preserved. Ever since we have all, both North and South, lived with the unease of its forcible reunion. For every American of feeling, this fact of our history has felt worse than kissing your sister.


Now I find that I am not alone in nursing dashed and suborned hopes for the land of cotton where old times are not forgotten. Chuck Thompson, a travel writer, has traveled the South and tells all in a new book, Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession. He argues persuasively that people in the North are "sick of people like Newt Gingrich and Jeff Sessions, Eric Cantor, and Haley Barbour having an impact on [the] country."

That said, "Why shouldn’t people be allowed to live in a pseudo-theocracy if they want to? If the majority of the people in a very large part of the country wants to have the Ten Commandments emblazoned in front of their legislative houses, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so?" Well said, and certainly food for thought. I can imagine a much happier South (a happier North, for all of that) were the South permitted, nay, encouraged, to go its own way, travel its own path, live out its future and pray at every damned high school football game under the kindly ministrations of the Ricks (Perry and Scott), Bobby Jindal et. al. Why shouldn't people be allowed to use the death penalty in cases of religious heresy, personal bankruptcy, "environmentalism" and voter fraud? Not to mention that an entire population will have been spared an onerous electoral choice between an apostate Christian or a Negro.

 Civil war reenactment - a hobby with a future?

We don't need another civil war to do this. I see it as more like the 1947 Partition of India, when India and Pakistan went their separate ways under the less-than-watchful eyes of Lord Mountbatten and the British Raj. The Muslims who wished to decamp to the new Muslim nation of Pakistan simply packed their bags and holdalls and boarded the northbound train for Lahore, while the Hindus living in the northwest packed up likewise and took the southbound liner to Delhi. Or walked. Of course, en route as the parties encountered one another, horrific sectarian slaughter occurred through no fault of the British Raj which was strictly Church of England and could do no more than permit a just and merciful God to deal as he saw fit with the bloodthirsty caravans of heathens. Thy will be done, of course.


Fortunately we are a Christian nation like the British of old (before all the Pakistanis moved to London), so everything should go smoothly in these parts. Of course, certain cultural sacrifices are inevitable. Austin, Texas will have to be sacrificed to the new republic, as will parts of Atlanta, Key West, and the Golan Heights, those liberal Jewish enclaves around Miami which sent Alan Grayson to Congress and may do so again god willing. A small cost in a utilitarian calculation, being the realization of greatest happiness for the greatest number. And of course what do we do with the Negroes (Clarence Thomas excepted), who might not want to leave at all? Maybe revised voter registration policies will sort that out in time. (Not that we anticipate Big Government will infest the New Confederacy - Antonin Scalia will be there to see to all that - but a little bit of B.G. helps when one needs real social reform.)

Naturally, the transfiguration of a Secessionist South would not end at placing the Ten Commandments on plaques at every bus stop, hack stand, massage emporium, pawn shop, army base, pool hall, faith healing temple, fairground, stock car and go-kart track, rib shack, public access golf course, snake farm, tilapia operation, bull semen parlor and discount liquor outlet in the happy new empire.

First, someone will have to dredge one of the original copies of the Confederate Constitution out of their root cellar where it has been in safekeeping in a tightly screwed jar.

 "If it ain't the Constitution then it's Aunt Euphronia."

The Constitution will require an amendment stipulating that none can run for office in the new republic unless they are a professing evangelical Christian, a true prayer warrior as the Founding Fathers intended. (Other voter registration restrictions will apply, as intimated above, but the quick reader will have noted, not without deep chagrin, that the rule restricting eligibility for office entails that Glenn Beck, a Mormon like Mr. Romney, also won't be moving to the New Confederacy.) Taxation will be rescinded. Publicly funded medical care, public transportation and public telephones will quickly come in short supply. And without the Environmental Protection Agency gumming up the works, New Secessionists will be happily lining up on street corners for the wave of new jobs that will materialize, all the while wondering why it's "been so goldang hot out."

The New Southern Economy (NSE)

Friday, August 10, 2012

That's an Olympic Sport? Really?

In the span of a little more than a century, the sages of the International Olympic Committee have seen fit to change course on whether this or that competitive endeavor should be considered merely a schoolyard pastime or elevated to the status of sport and thereby worthy for inclusion in its sanctioned international competitions. One case in point is the time-honored game of tug-of-war, probably not much engaged in these days when schoolyards and sandlots lie deserted and choked with a weedy riot of hydroponic marijuana plants and exotic Afghan poppies.

"Mind the poison ivy, lads."

Another such contest long gone by the boards is aquatic motorsport which in its day featured three different events. The sport had its brief run only in the 1908 Games. All three events were equidistant, five laps around a course of eight nautical miles. In each of the events, multiple boats started but only one finished, the others casualties of a serious gale. It was like NASCAR-on-water, but too dependent on weather - and no Earnhardts.

 Sorry, no encore

Still, it would seem the Olympic Committee, in this era of large screen, high definition television is making decisions based on standards from the mean and pandering through sheer cheesecakery to low comedy. Take racewalking (please), a perfectly fine way to stay fit in between mowing the suburban lawn, trimming the suburban hedge and washing the SUV in the driveway, but deeply questionable as an Olympic sport . . . 


 . . . inviting as it does interminable violations of the rules (one foot on the ground at all times), interminable disputes about who violated the rules and when, unending appeals to instant replays and television footage to determine whether the rules were religiously hewed to at each step by each contestant. The disputes are so numerous, protracted and acrimonious precisely because no one gives a shit about it as a medal event.

Dressage is such an obvious target for skewering that I hesitate to include it in the list (the Colbert Report has already had its way, predictably, with the Romney horse).  It's the equestrian version of racewalking, except the horse doesn't get a medal. Still, why not pander to the wealthy instead of just having a separate Olympics for their horses? If we're going to enlist animals and call it human competition, then why not, say, cockfighting? Or sheep dog trials? The animals are a lot smarter and have to do more, but those events don't require the entire superstructure of Western capitalism with its conspicuous consumption to give it raisonée and false buoyancy.


I think divers are pretty amazing and diving is a real sport that takes all the concentration and strength and coordination of any specialized motor activity. Synchronized diving, on the other hand, is both silly and redundant - the same can be said of synchronized swimming which is more exhibiting odd behavior in the water than it is actual swimming. Both events prove that you can have too much of a good thing (remember the "Doublemint Twins"?). And like racewalking, absolutely nobody cares.


Then there are the twin scourges, badminton and table tennis (a.k.a. 'ping pong'). These are family entertainments best confined to, in one case, the briar patch out behind the clothesline poles in the backyard where you played it naked with your cousins . . . 

Cousin Euphronia

. . . and in the case of ping pong, inside the garage that the old man remodeled as a screened-in family room, where your slightly inebriated and ill-tempered uncle always managed to whip your ass in the annual Thanksgiving family tournament.

 Uncle Wang

Which brings us to beach volleyball. This is an event that, I would venture, has a primarily male audience and has proven a big draw for NBC's "viewership" (a word which makes watching television sound like a sacred trust). Let's admit the truth - a man who claims to be watching beach volleyball for the love of the sport is very likely the same guy who would also tell you he reads Playboy for the articles.


As for me, I'm still hoping that roller derby is finally sanctioned by the venerable tradition of the Olympiad. Then we'll be off and running, no more waiting for the judges to post their scores, cheesecake for the asking, an oval track and not a horse anywhere. Roller derby is to roller skating what "Fight Club" is to "My Dinner With André."

"Wheeeeeee!!"

From My Cold, Dead Mailbox

Hon. Mark Udall
United States Senate
Hart Office Building Suite SH-328
Washington, D.C. 20510

Hon. Michael Bennett
United Sates Senate
458 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

August 10, 2012

Dear Sirs:

Multiple gun murders happen with such frequency in the United States that most of us do not even remember the names of the killers – in a couple of years, the names of Loughner, Holmes or Page will ring only a distant bell. Perhaps. Who remembers the names of the Columbine killers? The victims are so numerous they're quickly remembered only by those who happened to know them when they were alive.

Colorado has its special history of carnage - in two Denver suburbs, 26 people dead in just two murderous sprees. Since 9/11, 33 Americans have been killed by “terrorists”; roughly 150,000 Americans have been killed by “non-terrorists” – either by run-of-the-mill murderers or by psychotics with legally purchased weapons.  By any definition, Department of Homeland Security guidelines notwithstanding, anyone who turns a high-capacity assault weapon on innocent bystanders is a terrorist.

In the aftermath of Aurora, the nation’s leaders have surprised no one – the president, the opposition candidate, congressional and state legislators, all have remained timid to the point of pusillanimity, their better instincts hostage to the National Rifle Association.

The pieties and the eternal verities – hope, healing, reconciliation, concern for others  – these are moral luxuries in a society in which rational protections and fundamental securities, which might have been long ago ensured by the moral courage of an intelligent leadership enacting sound legislation, are up for sale to a manipulative and well-funded interest group. Pieties are not the same as sound policies. Public hand-wringing has never saved a life.

The right to life and liberty, unfettered by fear, is a constitutional right of every citizen. The unconditional license to own and carry firearms without wise regulation, without let or hindrance, has never been such a right. And inasmuch as owning a gun is a right, that right is trumped by the countervailing universal right to daily safety and security. That seems the fundamental duty of a government to its citizens.

Sane gun control is not an optional measure, not a legislative frill, not a regional or pork-barrel issue, not a commodity to be traded for campaign funding from a lobby that has strayed from reason, from the collective sensibilities of its own membership, and from any concern for the public good. Many of these murders would in all probability have been prevented through wise gun regulation, education, psychiatric and medical intervention.

The national leadership has in the past mustered the courage to ban assault weapons and high-capacity cartridge clips. Psychiatric and medical screening, regulation of sales at gun shows and internet storefronts, waiting periods after purchase, mandatory training in gun use – these are all obvious places to begin building a nonpartisan consensus. These measures violate no one’s constitutional rights.

As Colorado’s elected representative, you have undertaken to carry the interests of your constituents to the national capitol, to make that institution responsive to its citizens and responsible to its duties, the principal of which is to guarantee the fundamental safety of Americans to whatever extent lies in its power.

It is time for you to weigh the cost of campaign support from a lobby that has proven pernicious to the public welfare against your duty to legislate proper and obvious protections in the general interest. It is time to undertake a courageous step toward consensus among your Congressional colleagues to lead, to legislate, and to stand down a special interest gone awry, a special interest no longer deserving of special consideration nor superstitious fear.

With regards,
your fellow Coloradan,

Miguel de Montaigne

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Foggy Bottom

The Roman Senate (98 BCE)

Former U.S. senator Larry Craig (R., Idaho) is in the news again. You will recall that the former senator was arrested in 2007 by a plainclothes policeman at the Minneapolis airport when he assumed an unusually "wide stance" in performing one of Nature's principal offices. He incurred legal fees defending himself against charges of soliciting sex in the men's room.

For refusing to return more than $200,000 in campaign funds spent on legal fees associated with his arrest, the Federal Elections Commission is suing Craig for misuse of said funds. In response, Craig's attorney wrote that, “Senate rules sanction reimbursement for any cost relating to a senator’s use of a bathroom.” More succinctly, a CBS News headline explains that Craig claims "Bathroom Trip Official Business." Because, explained the ex-senator, "he was traveling between Idaho and the nation's capital for work."

Campaigning for Larry Craig's vacated Senate seat

It makes some sense - wouldn't the senator be reimbursed had he been required to tip some pesky washroom attendant who wouldn't fork over a towel unless his palm were greased, so to speak  . . .


. . .  or for losses sustained in an impromptu craps game in some raffish salle de bain publique while on a diplomatic junket to Marrakech or Port-au-Prince?

Business space/casino

This defense is not without precedent. Craig cites the case of former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., AZ) who used campaign funds to defend himself against allegations of impropriety with two male pages in 2006.  The FEC concluded that Kolbe's legal fees were “ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with his duty as a House member.” Enough said. Congessional business.

The difference, I suspect, is that, while Kolbe's alleged transgressions occurred in the Grand Canyon while on a rafting trip with a pair of Congressional pages, Craig's indiscretion occurred in a men's room while en route to Washington and involved an outside-the-Beltway copper with no sense of humor who hadn't a clue what "the business of the Senate" implies, nor why Washingtonians call their town "Foggy Bottom." The pages presumably understood that phrase quite explicitly, having been in and out of Congressional pissoirs any number of times before climbing onto Representative Kolbe's raft. They certainly must have known what “ordinary and necessary expenses" entailed in Kolbe's legislative orbit.

Additionally I would argue that Craig's case has merit if only for offering a refreshingly straightforward and apt account of just how and where the day-to-day work of Congress is done - a labyrithine world of stalls and cubicles where the daily bend-and-thrust of legislative horse trading, senatorial page swapping, floor show ticket sales, arms trading and such like transpires in the horseplay of public interest. 

U. S. Senate chambers
  
It would seem they manage their affairs similarly in the Vatican - Italian headlines announce:
One only hopes the issue is a happy one.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Amateur Hour


In a piece for the Paris Review entitled "Hacks Britannia: Reviving an Olympic Tradition of Crapness," his critique of filmmaker Danny Boyle's chaotic and puzzling opening ceremony of the London Olympics, Rafil Kroll-Zaidi cites some quirkily charming Olympic history.

“At the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, to which Britain did not send a delegation but at which it did earn two medals by virtue of owning Ireland, the first-place finisher in the marathon, a New York City bricklayer, was disqualified for having covered eleven miles of the course by automobile. The runner-up, a British-Bostonian brazier competing for America, whose trainers had administered him strychnine and brandy and egg whites and who had been borne along by officials for part of the race, was declared the victor . . . .

"[O]ther marathon runners included a five-foot Cuban postman who supposedly, as if in a children’s book, stopped to eat apples in an orchard, fell ill, fell asleep, then got back up and placed fourth. Two tribesmen from Orange Free State, who were part of an ethnographic sideshow at the World’s Fair, to which the Olympics were themselves a sideshow, finished respectably, though one was chased far off course by dogs. More than half the entrants failed to complete the race.”

Sounds like a good deal of plain fun, although it wasn't all glamor, mind you. Those were the days before NBC, in an era before the Olympics became a bit of extended cheesecake (or beefcake, as the case may be) . . . 

 Frederick Winters, USA (silver, 1904)

. . . when weightlifters dressed like retrograde elves, when men were men and smelled like it, and all the girls were ladies who never got endorsement deals.


Following suit and in step with the temper of the times, the 1908 Olympics in London featured an equally unruly marathon. Dorando Pietri, the first to finish, was dehydrated and beginning to black out as he neared the finish line, having just completed another marathon a few days earlier. Nearing the stadium finish, he took a wrong turn and the judges made him turn back. When he collapsed, the judges helped him to his feet. Two hundred meters from the finish, Pietri fell four more times, was lifted to his feet by the judges and a doctor each time, until he staggered across the line completely exhausted. 

He crossed the line first, but the final 500 meters had taken over 10 minutes. The American team protested and the American runnerup was named the winner. The instant replay showed that Pietri had in fact received considerable assistance at the finish line from a guy in a straw boater with a megaphone. As it happened, London played host that year because Mount Vesuvius had erupted outside Rome, where the Games were initially scheduled. One can only surmise how a patriotic Roman mob would have dealt with an American protesting the obvious triumph of their compatriot Pietri, whose name would doubtless today adorn the historical record of first places.
 
Dorando Pietri (London, 1908)
The 1908 London marathon merely followed a tradition for scandal and melodrama. In the initial Olympic Games in Athens (1896), Spyridon Belokas, who finished third, was later disqualified for having travelled a fair part of the course by carriage. In the 1900 Paris games, course markings were so poor that confused athletes ran randomly through most of central Paris; American Arthur Newton finished fifth but insisted, quite plausibly, that nobody had overtaken him all day; his compatriot Richard Grant said he had been deliberately run over by a cyclist as he was about to catch the race leaders. In St Louis in 1904, the "runner-up" admitted that he had actually retired at the nine-mile mark and travelled most of the remaining distance in a car. He was banned from sport for life and allowed to return the following year. Still, that year's winner (John Hicks, the brandy-and-strychnine adherent) made less than a photo finish, though there is a photo of him finishing.

Not entirely cricket?

The Olympics, like the Grand Tours of cycling, were once contests among gifted amateurs with day jobs. The Tour de France boasts amateurs like Octave Lapize, best remembered for cursing Tour offiicals to their faces while mounted on his bicycle in the midst of a stage. In the 1910 Tour, one of the first to include mountain stages, Lapize spotted some Tour officials while pedalling his way up the brutal Col du Tourmalet and shouted, "Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!" That particular stage was 326 kilometers (200+ miles) along unpaved roads on single-gear bicycles and featured seven categorized climbs, a feat that elevates amateurism to a form of insanity.
Octave Lapize
Considering the history of amateur sporting events, considering as well that the word "amateur" refers to one who participates for the love of the sport, it's hard not to regret the professionalization and logo-ization and corporatization of the whole affair. It's impossible to feel much transported by, say, the U.S. men's basketball team, a roster of pros like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant. An 83-point victory over Nigeria, a 47-point win over Tunisia, a 40-point shellacking of the UK - all these seem eminently forgettable, less athletic feats than just more triumphalist piling on. 

What is more memorable is that 5-point (99-94) squeaker over Lithuania in a game which favored the U.S. by nearly 35 points. The American pros trailed the Lithuanians by two points with less than six minutes. Only a 15-4 point run gave the U.S. a game-finishing lead and averted a second humiliation reminiscent of Lithuania's 2004 win at Athens. It seems only human to wish the  Lithuanians had won.

Which goes to prove that Olympic outcomes aren't entirely predictable, but they're more predictable and far less stirring than in the days when the Games were truly human drama under an amateur regime. I can't identify with professional athletes for the same reason I can't envy the wealthy (presuming they are not in every case the same) - they are too far elevated above my own more modest endowments. The gods are not bound by the same rules of either gravity or morality as are us mortals.

The Games will return to their former glory days when roller derby becomes an Olympic event - roller derby, a sport that elevates amateurism to joyous, utterly formless art.

"Wheeeeeeeee!"