Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell's latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, is difficult to categorize.  While it certainly fits comfortably within the vaguely defined genre of "historical fiction," it is also a love story, an adventure story, and a Nipponese horror story, all laced with a goodly share of intrigue and mystery.  It is an ambitious work.

The novel is set in 1799, in the area around Nagasake, in xenophobic, isolationist Japan.  The Dutch East Indies company, Japan's sole trading partner with the outside world, is confined to the islet of Dejima, lying in Nagasake harbor, a tiny European gateway into the opaque island nation at the end of the shogun era.  Jacob De Zoet is an enterprising young man out to make his fortune in the Orient. As he immerses himself in this alien world, he falls in love with Orito, the gifted Japanese midwife and befriends Uzaemon, a deeply moral Japanese interpreter.  He quickly finds himself stranded in a foreign land, with no prospects, embroiled in black market corruption, and on the bad side of powerful entities, including a sinister Japanese cult.

A theme of isolation due to incomprehension laces the story as the various characters struggle to communicate linguistically, emotionally, intellectually.  Their failures bring about consequences that are sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic.

Any examination of pre-modern Japan, of course, invites comparison with James Clavell's novel, Shogun, which depicts Japan some 200 years previous to Thousand Autumns.  Readers will quickly notice the similarities between Clavell's and Mitchell's Japan.  In fact, Shogun can almost serve as prequel to Mitchell's novel.

But Mitchell's skill far surpasses that of Clavell.  Mitchell writes in a terse, stripped down style that (dare I say it?) reminded me of Hemingway.  And although laconic, his prose does not lack in imagery or poetic flourish.  Mitchell seems to have an inherent knack for injecting scene descriptions at precisely the right intervals to allow the reader to fill in the gaps, to complete what John Gardner called the "indispensable fictional dream." 

Further, Mitchell proves himself a master writer with his use of vernacular in dialog.  Dutch traders speak crude doggerel.  Japanese officials employ language with precision and dignity.  English naval officers adhere to exaggerated military courtesy and decorum.

The book is peopled with fascinating characters:  gruff and humane Doctor Marinus, world-weary Captain Penhaligon, duty-ridden Chamberlain Tomine.  Mitchell uses humor and horror and wistful longing to great effect at various points in the story.  And it's all stitched together seamlessly.

I read the book as this month's selection for my book discussion group (Monsieurs Kidwell, Johnson and Kemmerer) and the unanimous conclusion was that the novel is fantastic.  Highly entertaining, eloquent, poignant and poetic.  I've appended David Mitchell's name to my list of favorite authors.  I highly recommend this book.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Religiously-illiterate America: What does it mean?

Get a load of this.

Many different studies (read one account here) have found the United States to be the most religious of the industrialized nations.  And yet:
...a recent survey of Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons outperformed Protestants and Roman Catholics in answering questions about major religions, while many respondents could not correctly give the most basic tenets of their own faiths. --from Huffington Post; read more here.
With all the ridiculous furor erupting over the location of mosques, and the insistence by some that the United States is a "Christian" nation, one would think that the passions on display are rooted in deeply held conviction.  But this survey shows that most Americans, and especially those who claim to be religious, don't know much about the core tenets of their faiths.

In support of the survey's findings, my own informal observations are that I am often more informed about religion than many supposedly religious people.  Believe me, folks, I've met some ignorant people purporting to be Christians, Muslims, Wiccans, and just about every other faith you'd care to name.  (Let me also quickly add that I have learned a lot from knowledgeable and reverent believers.)

What might it mean?  

My take on it is this:  Too often, in the United States, religious fervor is really just a veneer used to conceal tribalism and racial identity. Persons who have identified themselves as belonging to a particular faith feel that, by applying a label to themselves, they have fulfilled their obligations to seek Truth.  Nothing more need be done.

In short, this religious illiteracy is a manifestation of the intellectual laziness first brought into vogue by Ronald Reagan and culminating in the ultimate anti-intellectual, Junior Bush.  Let the clergy worry about all those impossible questions surrounding God and Man; as long as you call yourself a [insert your religious label here] your ass is covered.

I find the whole thing discouraging.

I'd make a pitch to those who call themselves religious:  whatever your faith, does it not warrant constant study and examination?  By continually questioning and exploring, are you not making your faith stronger?

There is a mini-quiz available here for those interested.  I answered 13 of the 15 questions correctly.  That put me in the 92nd percentile.  And I'm an Oregon agnostic.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pride of Oregon

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The National Guardsman peering through the long-range scope of his rifle was startled by what he saw unfolding in the walled compound below.

From his post several stories above ground level, he watched as men in plainclothes beat blindfolded and bound prisoners in the enclosed grounds of the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
He immediately radioed for help. Soon after, a team of Oregon Army National Guard soldiers swept into the yard and found dozens of Iraqi detainees who said they had been beaten, starved and deprived of water for three days.

In a nearby building, the soldiers counted dozens more prisoners and what appeared to be torture devices: metal rods, rubber hoses, electrical wires and bottles of chemicals. Many of the Iraqis, including one identified as a 14-year-old boy, had fresh welts and bruises across their backs and legs.

The soldiers disarmed the Iraqi jailers, moved the prisoners into the shade, released their handcuffs and administered first aid. Lt. Col. Daniel Hendrickson of Albany, Ore., the highest-ranking American at the scene, radioed for instructions.
--The Oregonian, August 8, 2004 
Some old stories bear repeating.  Back in the early days of Junior Bush's most egregious crime, the sons and daughters of Oregon intervened to protect defenseless people.  Sadly, the Iraq enterprise was so corrupt and malignant that this act of heroism and virtue was quickly nullified, but I won't go into that.

Rather, I note how Oregonians, in a moment of terrible decision, chose compassion and decency, even when it was difficult.

I'm not trying to whitewash Oregon's history, mind you.  The Modoc Indian tribe and Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce provide stark testimony to our capacity for cruelty and ignorance.  But we're learning.  And we're way ahead of the tea-baggers and neo-Confederates corrupting the national Republican party.

But, speaking as a native Oregonian, born and raised, and damn proud of it, I assert that living here in this largely peaceful, mostly temperate, mellow, green paradise, we do our best.  We give what we can to help others.  We do our best to be good citizens.  And we exercise compassion toward those who suffer.  Even those whom we have known as enemies.

Here's another story from Oregon's past.  This is a recounting of a campaign in the Philippine Islands during the Spanish American War.  I have a feeling that, had Private Joseph DeBurgh lived to see how the Oregon National Guard comported itself in the Iraq War, he would have been proud.

In the town of Cavite, Aguinaldo's headquarters, the churches and other large buildings were crowded with Spanish prisoners.  These poor fellows who were apparently humanely treated by their captors, were suffering greatly from beri-beri, due to lack of proper food.  Although they were our enemy as well as of the Filipinos, many it [sic] can of corned beef and salmon found their way to them through the bars of their prison, and we went on light rations, for some days.  --from the memoirs of Joseph DeBurgh, volunteer with the 2nd Oregon Volunteer Infantry Division, serving in the Spanish American War
Be proud, Oregonians.  I am.

Monday, September 27, 2010

GOP jumps the shark?

Is Mike Pence cool, or what?   "Ayyyy!"

America, can we muster the nerve and political will to drive a stake through the heart of the Know-Nothings?

Because that is the opportunity before us, going into these 2010 mid-term elections.

So far, this election year, the prevailing wisdom among the punditry is that the Democrats will be routed at the polls; that the Republicans, driven by their nativist, reactionary base, will sweep into the majority in the House of Representatives and maybe even in the US Senate.

It certainly might happen that way.

But, then again, it may just be that Republicans, with their nutty, irrational rhetoric, have "jumped the shark" politically.  That is, with their slate of unhinged candidates (all endorsed by Sarah Palin) the Republicans may have finally succumbed to their delusional fantasies in which anyone who is not ideologically pure is therefore evil.

The primary elections this year have seen a purge of some nearly iconic political figures within the GOP.  The tea-bagging base believes that the reason Republicans have failed so miserably in the past several years is because they have compromised on what they call "conservative principles."

The redneck base is fired up.  And with all their successes in the primaries they have set expectations for November very high.

Political conditions conspire to give them hope, as well.  Historically, mid-term elections favor the party out of power.  Democrats are over-extended as a result of the last two national elections in which Democrats made huge gains, even in areas that trend Republican.  (New York's 23rd Congressional District is a prime example.)  Unemployment hovers near 10%.  President Obama's approval ratings are under 50%.  In short, the GOP has everything going its way as we head into the home stretch. 

But the bar is very high.  Imagine what might happen if Democrats retain control of the House.  Even if the Republicans gain a significant number of seats, which is almost a certainty, but fail to gain the majority, their party will be convulsed with recrimination.  The intraparty sniping and sparring that has come in the wake of the Junior Bush disaster, will ignite into full scale warfare.  John Boehner and Mitch McConnell could both be discredited and disgraced, to say nothing of all the demagogues on the periphery (Dick Armey, Newt Gingrich).

And, just maybe, the idiot base of the Republican party, the people who insist that President Obama is a secret Muslim, that his citizenship is in doubt, that anyone to the political left of Ronald Reagan is a socialist,  that global warming is a hoax, that belief in evolution precludes a belief in God, might actually be forced to confront the ignorance of their views.

Doesn't that sound like heaven on Earth?

It might just be pie-in-the-sky fantasy, but I think I have detected, over the last week or so, a subtle shifting of the tides, now that the primary season is over.  Democrats are starting to rally.

Liberals, progressives, let's see if we can't join General Petraeus.  Let's see if we can give the bigots a nice clean elbow to the chops.

Friday, September 24, 2010

La violencia en la frontera continúa

En la ciudad mexicana de Juárez, através de la frontera de El Paso, Tejas, la guerra entre tropas mexicanos y los maleantes de droges continúa tomar un peaje en los personas sufridos mexicanos.  El domingo pasado, un periodista joven, Luis Carlos Santiago, 21, fue asasinado por gánsters, incitando los redactores de su periódico, El Diario de Juárez, escribir un editorial que pregunta de los criminales "¿Qué quieren de nosotros?"

En esta editorial, ellos escriben:
Ante el nuevo asesinato, El Diario se preguntó el viernes 17, en un editorial casi tan rotundo como el de dos días después, “¿A quién pedir justicia?”. La dramática interrogación era formulada desde la puerta norte de “un país en el que las autoridades han demostrado su objetiva incompetencia”, y está probada la “anuencia por omisión de los poderes establecidos” ante los poderes fácticos. De allí que insistieran en preguntar: “¿A quién le reclamamos que no lo hayamos hecho ya?”.

Por eso, el domingo ese dolido periódico fue más allá. Resolvió dirigirse a las bandas de delincuentes que tomaron a Ciudad Juárez, a las que llamó “autoridades de facto”, y a las que inquirieron “qué esperan de nosotros como medio”, pues “ya no queremos más muertos, ya no queremos más heridos ni tampoco más intimidaciones”.
Se asusta para imaginarse que un periódico reconocería una organización criminal como el gobierno de facto tan abiertamente.

¿Pero qué es la alternativa?  La administración de Felipe Calderon, el presidente mexicano, es notoriamente corrompe y apenas mejor que una pandilla armada.  Y Tejas gobernador Confederado Rick Perry, antes que ayudar, procura rayar puntos políticos con retórica vacía.

En el libro del escritor norteamericano, Cormac MccCarthy, se llama "No Country for Old Men," él describe la situación en la frontera como una pesadilla de violencia y anarquía.  Ahora, vemos más evidencia.

El Diario pregunta una cuéstion matizó con desesperación.  Los ciudadanos de Juárez quieren saber, "¿Qué debemos hacer nosotros no ser asesinados?"  ¿Quién contestará? ¿Verdaderamente, quién puede contestar?

(Perdóneme por favor para mi español malo.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Is this goodbye, then, Rahm?

 "Mr. President, don't worry about the base.  They're f*cking retarded."
Rumors abound in all the papers that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is set to leave the Obama administration to make a run for Mayor Richard Daley's job as the head honcho of the City of Chicago. 

I've got my fingers crossed for two reasons.

Reason Number 1:  To quote Tony Montana, the cocaine kingpin from the 1983 remake, Scarface, as he watched his business partner dance on the end of a noose, "I never liked that prick."

Thanks to Rahm Emanuel, this administration has given the Democratic base, the Left, whom Rahm said was "f*cking retarded," the back of the hand.  I'll give him this:  he's not a glad-hander.  If he has no use for you, he'll let you know by demeaning you and insulting you.  A real class act, that Rahm. 

But, whether it was the public option surrender in the recently-passed (and supposedly historic) health care legislation, or the one-sided, unjust, and unquestioning support of Israel in the Palestinian conflict, or the failure of the Obama administration to investigate and prosecute the many obvious criminals in the previous administration, it is easy to discern the hand of Rahm Emanuel.

Reason Number 2:  From what I've read, an Emanuel victory in Chicago is anything but assured.  He could easily lose the race.  And you may call it petty, if you like, but I relish the thought of Rahm Emanuel being handed a humiliating defeat at the hands of Chicago voters.

I remember the day, back in November, 2006, when Junior Bush was humiliated at the polls, ceding control of both houses of Congress to the opposition party.  The look on his simian face, bewildered and vaguely frightened, was pure bliss to behold.  Well, an Emanuel loss might not be quite as sublime as all that, but it would be sweet nonetheless.

Of course, if Rahm does leave the White House, that is no guarantee that the Obama administration will set a new course that is more palatable to liberals and progressives.  And I'd caution anyone from expecting that it will.  But it is doubtful that President Obama could pick anyone more antagonistic to the Democratic base than he did the first time.  (Well, I suppose he could pick a Republican.  Heh.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Graffiti rhyme

No role might I play in the gray of this day
That would be better suited

Than to stand 'gainst the tide, miles wide, tongues that chide,
My feet firmly rooted.

To belabor my neighbor will earn me no favor.
Already we've feuded.

Eyes moist, lonesome voice, left no choice,
But speak out, to be hooted.

My words, now absurd, someday will be heard,
As treatise of Euclid.

Desolate scrawl on the wall says it all:
"time is fluid"

Monday, September 20, 2010

Democrats and Republicans share the doghouse

Professional pundits and casual political observers all agree:  this is a bad year to be an incumbent.  Pollsters predict a "wave" election, sweeping out establishment candidates, bringing in a new slate of congresspersons. 

Ostensibly, this is bad news for Democrats.  After all, with their vast majorities in both houses of Congress, they have more seats to defend and are therefore more likely to bear the brunt of voter anger in November.

But, at this point, the only certainty is that the Republican establishment is discredited and despised.  It is true that voters despise Democrats, who have a pathetic approval rating of  30% according to a CBS News/NYT Poll.  However, the same poll indicates that Republicans, with their 20% approval rating, are even more despised.

The elections this year have certainly made clear that Republican primary voters (which, presumably consist of a good number of tea-baggers) detest so-called "establishment" Republicans.  This year, "mainstream" Republican have been crushed.  Senator Bob Bennett of Utah, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Congressman Mike Castle of Delaware, Trey Grayson of Kentucky, Governor Charlie Crist of Florida, and other Republicans have been rejected by angry tea-baggers.  So, while it is clear that, although the tea-baggers certainly hate Democrats and President Obama, it is also clear that they hate Republicans.  Or, at least, they hate incumbent Republicans.  (But, then again, so do I.)

So, while the tea-baggers have succeeded in weakening the structure of the Republican party by discrediting some of its long-bearded panjandrums, they have yet to prove themselves capable of winning in general elections. 

Odds are that a number of the tea-bag candidates will win in November, in this year of voter discontent, with unemployment near 10%. I'm almost resigned to it.  And, in spite of it, I'm relatively buoyant about the future.

Here's why:  If this does turn out to be a "wave" election, it will be the third such consecutive election, dating back to 2006. In that year, Democrats swept the Junior Bush Republicans out of office.  Then, in 2008, voters again punished Republicans, smothering them in the Obama coattails and affording the Democrats with huge majorities in both houses of Congress.

My prediction is that, if Republicans are swept into majorities this year, 2012 will be another "wave" election.  The candidates that Republicans are selecting in the primaries are ideological purists, who will be unable to compromise with the Obama administration and with Democrats.  This will result in paralysis of the federal government, which the president, with his bully pulpit can exploit to discredit them.

So-called "swing" voters are fed up and they will generally vote to oust incumbents.  Their votes will not be for tea-bagger candidates so much as they will be against the status quo.  But when the insanity and ignorance of the tea-bag movement is on display in the national venue, people will very quickly wake up.

Six weeks from now, Democrats may well take a drubbing.  They've earned it.  But the real losers, in the long run, will be Republicans.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lessons from "The Summer that Wasn't"

Adieu, l'été doux ...
As I write, in these ultimate days of the summer of 2010, "The Summer that Wasn't," my much-loved and much-missed wife is sitting in JFK International, waiting to board a delayed flight that will take her half-a-world away, to West Africa.  Poor thing.  Continent hopping is a grueling bit of business.

I dropped her off at the airport early this morning.   The image of her --standing on her toes, waving me farewell, in her bright red hoodie and jeans, backpack slung over her shoulder, her free arm raised --is imprinted on my mind's eye.  Her form was a strobe in the scan of people bustling to and fro.  That sight and her absence, which I feel deeply, have coursed rivulets down my cheeks all day.

When she comes home, this "Summer that Wasn't" will be long gone, a memory tinged with regret for unrealized potential.  Whatever gods might yet reign in the deeps of mighty Pacifica have not been generous.  The clouds and the rain and the unseasonable coolness have never been far away.  Late summer showers portend a cold, wet autumn.

News is all bad these days.  Nativists and Know-Nothings mustering themselves for one last witch hunt.  Indentured servitude for the masses. This fall is likely to see a short-lived triumph for the ignorant. 

Dark days ahead.  Nothing to do but soldier on.

So, I went out for a walk this evening.  Muggy, warm and cloudy.  Twilight was already gnawing at the remains of the day when I got home.  But it isn't so bad.  As one gets older, disappointment becomes just another of the little aches and pains, both physical and emotional, that cling like lampreys, feeding on the spirit. Ultimately they weigh us down, return us to Earth.

My advice?  Enjoy the struggle!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Heartsick and lonely

Heartsick and lonely
In this rainy September
You haven't left yet

One month isn't long
Your business-of-travel mind
Strands me on home shore

You're a fortnight gone
Come my dreary October
Heartsick and lonely

(Au revoir, ma cherie amor!  Bon voyage!)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Words of the Prophet

Old nemesis merged on my pathway
I guessed that his trek had been long
Diverged and returned here beside me
"In compassion be like the sun."

An African woman imparted
Dark Continent's wisdom to me
As tempered by words of the Prophet:
"In tolerance be like the sea."

Monday, September 13, 2010

13 Enviros host Governor Kitzhaber

Humble author and the Guv
Friday evening, I attended a cocktail party/fund-raiser hosted by the Portland-based 13 Enviros political action committee.  The event was held in support of Governor Kitzhaber's campaign to be (re)elected to the governor's mansion this year.

I arrived at the home of Nicole Cordan, at the foot of Mount Tabor shortly after 6pm to find a crowd of well-dressed, finely-mannered Portland political activists enjoying smoked salmon, a delicious taco bar, fresh fruit, barbecued ribs, beer, wine and various other delectable goodies. 

The event was a mere twenty-some blocks from my house in the Hawthorne area, which made it very convenient.  I was a tad self-conscious at the event, seeing as I was clad in my usual summer attire of shorts, tee-shirt, and sandals, while most of the other attendees were dressed in elegant evening wear.  (Well, after all, the invitation did state that the event was a "cocktail party.")  Nonetheless, I partook of the good noshes and tried to remain inconspicuous...

...which I did successfully until I was approached by an out-going gentleman who saw me standing by myself, came forward and extended his hand with a friendly smile.  "Bob Stacey," he said.  "I'm running for Metro President."

We shook, and I did my best to engage Bob about his candidacy for Metro President, but the truth is that I'm not up to speed on Metro issues to the extent that I should be, so I couldn't formulate pertinent questions.  Bob related his ideas about Metro, about where it should go, about his vision for its future.  I asked him about his ideas for growth in the Portland metro area and he seemed emphatic about the need to preserve our farmlands and countryside.  He talked a bit about his plans to provide incentive for in-fill development, which sounded good to me.  I'll have to investigate his web page between now and voting time to learn more.

Metro President hopeful Bob Stacey
Governor Kitzhaber arrived unannounced, sometime around 7pm.  I was wandering around and more or less bumped into him. He was dressed in his trademark jacket, jeans and cowboy boots.  His natural good looks and easy manner marked him as a leader, and he had all the subtle polish of an accomplished politician. 

When I approached him, he made and held eye contact.  I never once saw his eyes stray to the name tag I had affixed to my shirt, and yet he greeted me by name.  "Hi, Dade.  Thanks for coming," he said, extending his hand.

I asked the governor about his plans to fund our public schools and about how Oregon might address our revenue shortfalls.  "The revenue is just not going to be there for a couple years," he told me.  (I'm paraphrasing.)  "We need to get the economy going.  That will bring revenues into line."  I thought this was a frank answer. 

Governor Kitzhaber delivering his remarks on Friday evening
Shortly after I spoke with him, Governor Kitzhaber delivered some remarks to everyone.  Since 13 Enviros mostly focuses on environmental issues, the governor related how, in his youth, he came to know Oregon through its rivers:  the Umpqua, the Santiam, the Deschutes.  He told how he believes that the life cycle of Northwest salmon can serve as metaphor for the importance of preserving Oregon, about how important it is, in these difficult economic times, not to take short-cuts on the environment.
Well, Governor, I'm on board with all of that.  And I'm proud to support you in your reelection bid.  Let's win in November.

Note:  Shout out to my old childhood friend, Jeff Stuhr, whom I ran into at the event.  Good to see you, Jeff!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Eid Mubarak, 2010!

 Portland Muslims, 2006
Today (or tomorrow, depending on how it is calculated) is the last day of the month of Ramadan; Eid al-Addha, a holy time in the Islamic faith; a time of celebration.

Although I'm not Muslim, I'm joining the world's 1.5 billion Muslims today in their celebrations.  Why?

Because, in spite of all the Islamophobia gripping certain segments of our population, the ideal of America is still alive. Check out this report from NBC news last night.

The Heartsong Church in Memphis demonstrates not only what it means to be American, but what it means to be Christian as well.  The ideal of America (as opposed to the reality) is a land where people are free to practice their faiths without being subject to persecution, a land governed by tolerance and respect.  And, as Pastor Steve Stone says in the video, his church is doing what Christ bade them to do:  loving its neighbors.

As the spouse of a devout Muslim, I am gratified by this act of charity and love.  It is reassuring and deeply moving to know that my country is filled with decent, kind, and loving people. 


Thursday, September 09, 2010

Scooter Libby whines

Surreal.  That's all I can say.  Check this exchange between between Fox News' Monica Crowley and convicted perjurer and former Chief of Staff to Dick the Beast, Scooter Libby:
CROWLEY: Scooter, a final question for you. That absurd political witch-hunt that you were subjected to during the Valerie Plame case, your sentence was commuted, but you never did, in fact, get a pardon. Are you still hopeful that eventually you might get a pardon?

LIBBY: […] I learned two things from this. One is the world’s not just. And the second is it doesn’t do a lot of good to whine.

CROWLEY: You’re a class act, Scooter Libby. And had Monica Crowley been president of the United States, you would have gotten that pardon.
Go here to see the video.

Monica Crowley calls the investigation into the "outing" of a CIA operative who was working to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, an "absurd political witch-hunt."  But, of course, that assessment is belied by the fact that Scooter Libby was convicted by a jury of his peers on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Undeterred, Crowley goes on to gush:  "You're a class act, Scooter Libby.  And had Monica Crowley been president of the United States, you would have gotten that pardon."  Just goes to show:  Junior Bush may be the worst president in the history of this nation, but we've still got some digging before we hit the bottom of the barrel.

And as for Scooter:  Do you mean to say, Scooter, that it took you 60 years to figure out that the world is unjust?  Slow learner, apparently.  I had that figured out when Junior and Dick started their filthy war (with your help) and got away with it.

But your conviction seems to stick in Old Man Dick's craw, judging from the way he tried to bully Junior into granting you a pardon.  That's about as much justice as I suppose we can expect in this world.

As Cardinal Altamirano said, in Roland Joffé's classic 1986 flick, The Mission, "... thus have we made the world... Thus have I made it."

There might be a lesson in there for you somewhere, Scooter.  But I doubt you could find it.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

General Petraeus slaps down the bigots

General Petraeus/Protesters in Afghanistan
At long last, persons in positions of authority are beginning to excoriate the bigots in our midst.  In fact, just yesterday, no less a person than General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Afghanistan and the man lauded by John McCain as "one of America's greatest heroes," lashed out at the planned "Burn the Quran" demonstration to be held on September 11th by the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida.

From the Christian Science Monitor:
General Petraeus said that burning Korans "is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems – not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community," according to CNN.

"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan," Gen. David Petraeus said in a statement issued Monday ...

"Even the rumor that it might take place has sparked demonstrations such as the one that took place in Kabul yesterday," he said. "Were the actual burning to take place, the safety of our soldiers and civilians would be put in jeopardy and accomplishment of the mission would be made more difficult."
Terry Jones, the Dove World Outreach Center's pastor, in response, said "We have firmly made up our mind, but at the same time, we are definitely praying about it."  Whatever that means. 

It seems to me that Jones' ignorant ploy provides yet another example of the false piety displayed by redneck bigots in this country.  On the one hand, they tearfully claim to "support the troops," and "honor their sacrifice."  On the other, they simply must find vent for the fevered bigotry and hatred that roils their brains.  The "Burn the Quran" protest is a clear indication of which of the two sentiments prevails in the right-wing mentality.  (And don't get me started on the pseudo-controversy about the Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan.)

Now that news of the Dove World Outreach Center's idiotic demonstration has crossed the globe, adding yet another shameful blemish to our country's already damaged international reputation, Muslims in Afghanistan, Indonesia, and other places (including the United States) are expressing outrage.

So, score one for the Dove World Outreach Center.  They've accomplished their goal of making known their hatred of Muslims.  But as General Petraeus points out, the rest of us must now endure the consequences.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Movie review: Inception

Inception, the new film about "dream thieves," written and directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo Dicaprio, enters into a very select set of films.  Maty and I were in agreement on its entertainment value.  That rarely happens.  Unfortunately, neither of us liked the film.

The setting is the near future, in which technology has created the ability for people to enter one another's dreams and extract information.  Cobb (Dicapprio) is the foremost pioneer of this new psychic frontier.  He is hired by Shaito (Ken Watanabe), a fabulously rich business mogul, to enter the dreams of a rival, there not to extract information, but to plant an idea!  Cobb goes about assembling a team of experts and concocting a plan to succeed at the impossible.  Moderately suspenseful action sequences, laced with incessant special effects ensue.

The film seems to be an attempt to bridge the gap between a "special effects" movie (think Avatar), and a "heist" flick (Ocean's 11, perhaps) with a scifi twist. I grant, penetrating the dreams of other human beings is an intriguing concept.  But in order for it to work, the universe in which that is possible must be complete, consistent, and true to its own laws.  Somehow, the film must provide its audience with the background information, while at the same time advancing the plot at a compelling pace.  That's a pretty big undertaking and it places a huge burden on the script. 

Unfortunately, Nolan didn't pull it off.  Much time is given to background information --explaining the laws of dream time and dream landscapes and the different levels of dreaming --but it is delivered in staccato intervals, in jarring, pace-killing segues from action to interminable dialog.  So much information must be related so quickly that it soon becomes too much.  A few minutes into the flick I had given up on trying to make sense of all the gobbledygook that the various characters uttered.  But, alas, the action is so staccato and halting that one can't really sit back and enjoy the roller coaster ride either.

At some point, I suspect, Nolan took pity on those viewers who might still be trying to make sense of it all.  That can be the only explanation for the imposition of Hans Zimmer's score, which strains desperately in its attempt to suggest emotion to the clueless audience.  It's not subtle.

The herculean effort required to make the whole thing fly, it seems, left Nolan nothing to spare for trivialities like character development.  And he held his talented cast in check, letting none of the actors make a run at some real acting.

Perhaps Nolan's hope is that, now that all the background information is established, and if Inception is deemed enough of a success, a sequel will follow.  Any subsequent film would be rid of the burden of background development. 

But Maty and I left the theater in rare agreement.  Inception is not our kind of film.  Quoth Maty:  "I love Leo Dicaprio, but this movie..."

Friday, September 03, 2010

Dead duck Democrats

All the punditry and pollsters seem to agree that Democrats are going to be slaughtered in the coming mid-term elections. I can't say I would be surprised to see it happen.

Further, in spite of their huge legislative successes (Federal stimulus, national health care, credit card reforms, financial reform), the Democrats deserve to lose. From my perspective, the Democrats lacked the courage to do what was really necessary. They didn't do enough to satisfy the true-believers (like me), but did more than enough (in spite of a cowardly attempt at appeasement) to infuriate the Glenn Beck-tormented tea-baggers. Some things may be forgiven when you consider that Democrats have the burden of being a coalition of different interests: diverse, often at odds with each other. But, whatever may happen this November, the Democrats have definitely earned a comeuppance.

However, if the Democrats deserve to lose, it does not follow that the Republicans deserve to win. The one meager virtue Democrats have is that they are not Republicans. Despite Minority Leader Boehner's feeble grab at the helm, the Republican party is coming apart. Any gains they make in November will, I believe, prove to be short-lived. And with long term demographic trends very much against them, I believe they are doomed. I've said it before, and I say it now: The Confederacy may, at long last, have succeeded in destroying the party of their archenemy, Abraham Lincoln.

If Democrats have been cowardly (and they certainly have), Republicans have been even worse:  going along with the bigoted ravings of the only demographic that still believes in them.  (There are a few notable exceptions.  I about lost my cookies when I heard the other day that Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) defended the right of Muslims in New York City to build their cultural center.  Really?  Orrin Hatch?)

Well, I'm still holding out hope, however meager, that Republican gains will be less than expected.  It is hard to imagine that President Obama would view  a Republican-controlled House of Representatives as a positive development.  But if President Obama, with his cool, detached demeanor wants to stay above the fray, feels it is safer to stand back and let it all come down, in spite of the zeal with which the political Left supported him in 2008, so be it.

In summary, my lefty comrades, if Obama isn't going to fight for us, perhaps we need to swallow hard, and start all over.

Let us see what November will reveal.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Gettin' some culture

Promotional illustration of "The Book of Genesis Illustrated"
I took a mosey downtown the other day, just to look around on an idle vacation day, when I noticed that the Portland Art Museum is currently exhibiting comic-book artist Rick Crumb's illustrated Book of Genesis.  The exhibition shows the original black-and-white illustrations of all 50 chapters of the first book of the Bible (as depicted by Mr. Crumb).  You can read about the exhibition here.
Curiosity piqued, I paid the admittance fee and spent a good two and a half hours going over the extensive and exhaustive work, which includes every single word of the original scriptures (derived from multiple sources).

Crumb writes a thorough foreword in which he explains his sourcing and research and offers up a defense against the indignant howls of irreverence that are certain to arise.
The entire work is depicted in framed glass, arranged in rows that cover walls on two separate floors of the museum.

At first, I set about reading each word and studying the accompanying illustration, but the sheer volume of material convinced me that such was a futile effort.  I soon converted to scanning illustrations and reading what I deemed to be the most interesting stories:  the Creation, Adam and Eve and the (very bad) serpent, Noah and the Ark, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers. 

An example of Crumb's work (this is a French translation; the exhibit is in English)

I wish I'd had Crumb's illustrated version when I read the Book of Genesis for the first time.  This time around, I found that the illustrations helped me maintain focus on the text (whatever that may imply about our increasingly visually-stimulated civilization).  Some might find Crumb's illustrations to be caricatures, but of course, an artist can't be constrained by worries about offending people who live to be offended.

I enjoyed the exhibition and learned a lot from it.  Further the staff of the Portland Art Museum were courteous, helpful and informative.

Just another benefit of living in this rainy little city I suppose.