February 6, 2008

Win one for the Zipper

Filed under: Laws and Sausages, The Gray Lady, The Old Dirty War — tomemos @ 11:00 pm

So, I voted for Obama.

I came to the decision on Monday, and became more comfortable with it as the day went on. I realized that, all else being equal—and it really is, for me—Clinton’s vote for the war pretty much trumps everything else, especially her claims to be more qualified than Obama. For instance, this letter to the Times, writing in favor of “experience,” makes a pretty good point…

J.F.K. was far more experienced than Mr. Obama, having served 14 years in Congress, winning a Pulitzer Prize and being a decorated war hero. But right after he was elected, the Bay of Pigs, one of the biggest military debacles in United States history, occurred.

…until you remember that Hillary Clinton voted for the biggest military debacle in United States history. I don’t know whether to believe the best or the worst about either Obama or Clinton, but what’s certain is that Clinton didn’t have either the foresight or the conviction to vote against the war, and Obama—facing much less pressure, yes—did. That gets him my support, for now.

But overall I’m enthusiastic about both candidates, which means that, having chosen one, I’ll gripe about him incessantly. I’m still skeptical about the Obama cult of personality—I’m not charmed by people who can only be bothered to vote in November if their Bestest Candidate is nominated, for instance—and every time I came across an ad hominem attack on Clinton before voting, I almost changed my mind and gave her my support instead. For instance, Maureen Dowd—never the most grounded of columnists—has completely lost her mind. If this column had been published on Tuesday rather than Wednesday, I would have voted for Clinton without a second’s hesitation. (More on that column here, here, and here, by the way.)

And now, the waiting game. I do believe that either of these candidates can beat John McCain in a walk, and that having more exposure due to a protracted contest will be good for the Democrats’ chances…unless one side goes negative or dirty and starts tearing the other down. (And yes, I know all the things Clinton is supposed to have done. No sale.) If they can keep the lovefest going to the convention, and avoid some ugly floor fight, we should be in good shape. Just ask Tomemos, the guy who predicts a Democratic victory in every single election.


October 5, 2007

I’ll try to see it your way

Filed under: Blogs Themselves, The Gray Lady — tomemos @ 10:37 am

Since some of you read my blog via RSS reader, I thought I’d alert you to a comment you may have missed: Jeff Hersh, who wrote the letter to the New York Times featured in this entry about the Virginia Tech shootings, wrote a comment responding to my criticisms. I hope that you all will check it out and weigh in. And my thanks to Jeff for his contribution.

July 7, 2007

On the other side it didn’t say nothing

Filed under: Laws and Sausages, The Gray Lady — tomemos @ 12:47 am

Real quick: Here’s an excerpt from a letter to the New York Times, in response to a July 4 op-ed pointing out that the US has a long tradition of accepting immigrants despite native anxieties. The letter writer disputes the relevance of this historical argument to our current immigration controversy. Put your fingers on your buzzers and your reading glasses on your, um, face, and let’s play … Spot the Tautology!

Regardless of the number or ethnic background, the entry of illegal immigrants is, according to our laws, unacceptable.

If you answered “the whole quote,” you’ve found the tautology! That’s because illegal immigration is by definition unacceptable “according to our laws”; that’s what “illegal” means. The issue before this house is whether our immigration laws match our standard of what’s acceptable; if not, then we should change the laws. It does no good to rest your argument on the law that’s being debated, any more than a criminal can say that he shouldn’t be put in jail because incarceration is unacceptable to him.

You see this argument all the time in the immigration debate, and actually whenever any issue of decriminalization comes up: that the activity in question should not be decriminalized, because it’s illegal. I had an argument about whether marijuana should be legalized, in which I was told that people are free to use marijuana as long as they accept the possibility of imprisonment. There was an episode of The West Wing where one character asks another why prostitution shouldn’t be legal, and she responds, “Because in this country you’re not allowed to sell your body.” Without taking any stance for the moment on these issues, or on immigration, it should be obvious to everyone why this type of logic is not helpful. It’s circular: we can’t legalize marijuana, because if we did then we couldn’t punish people for using marijuana, which is illegal. In real life, we often find that the absolute positions that keep some laws on the books are out-of-date or harmful; when we decriminalize, surprise! nothing bad happens. Remember the laws against contraception and adultery? (Not to mention sodomy, miscegenation, and on and on…)

Of course, one could argue that, until the law is changed, it is wrong of us to break it. But that too is begging the question, since laws don’t have some sort of moral value in and of themselves, but are moral to the degree they serve the public good and protect people from harm. You have to convince me that illegal immigrants are causing harm by entering the country, not just that they’re scofflaws or whatever. If I thought otherwise, I’d have a hard time explaining to my kid how great Martin Luther King was. (And yes, people used this same argument against him: it’s fine if he wants rights, as long as he doesn’t break any statutes to get them.)

So please, everyone in the universe: stop arguing this way on anything. Understand that when you’re talking to adults you have to demonstrate why something should be illegal, rather than just relying on our inherent love of the rules.

April 19, 2007

Someone who gets other people killed

Filed under: The Gray Lady — tomemos @ 1:52 am

I have a serious question. When did it become okay to criticize college students, or indeed any innocent bystanders, for failing to prevent or halt a horiffic school shooting? Is this the internet’s fault, or talk radio’s? Honestly, I feel like something has seriously changed since 1999, when Columbine got people blaming the parents, the guns, bullies, Doom, and Marilyn Manson … but not, as I recall, the actual students who had to run and hide for their lives. If I’m right, and this is new, we are worse people since then.

I agree that it is appropriate, after a school shooting, to ask whether the school administration and security did enough to predict and prevent it, though we should keep in mind that hindsight is 20/20. I agree that it’s fair to suggest that a culture of harassment and bullying makes it more likely that violence, including fatal or mass violence, will occur, though obviously there isn’t a one-to-one ratio. Diciest of all, I can agree that it becomes fair game to at least wonder whether the parents and home life contributed to a shooter’s mental problems, though I’m certainly not going to invite any bad parenting karma by bragging that no child of mine could ever, ever, ever do such a thing. But to say, as the National Review’s John Derbyshire does, that Virginia Tech students were deficient in not rushing a deranged shooter in an attempt to disarm him … well, there’s no “though” there. That’s just fucked up.

As NRO’s designated chickenhawk, let me be the one to ask: Where was the spirit of self-defense here? Setting aside the ludicrous campus ban on licensed conceals, why didn’t anyone rush the guy? It’s not like this was Rambo, hosing the place down with automatic weapons. He had two handguns for goodness’ sake—one of them reportedly a .22.

At the very least, count the shots and jump him reloading or changing hands. Better yet, just jump him. Handguns aren’t very accurate, even at close range. I shoot mine all the time at the range, and I still can’t hit squat. I doubt this guy was any better than I am. And even if hit, a .22 needs to find something important to do real damage—your chances aren’t bad.

Yes, yes, I know it’s easy to say these things: but didn’t the heroes of Flight 93 teach us anything? As the cliche goes—and like most cliches. It’s true—none of us knows what he’d do in a dire situation like that. I hope, however, that if I thought I was going to die anyway, I’d at least take a run at the guy.

If I try to write about this thoroughly (“count shots”? Even the goddamn Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook says that’s nonsense) I’m going to get sick again, so let’s cut to the most important thing here, one that took me a few reads to pick up: the way Derbyshire redefines the extremes of the situation as the norm. Normal people, when they imagine finding themselves on campus with a maniac who is shooting people at random, would unanimously define that as an absolutely critical scenario, and would define the minimum (and probably only) condition of “success” as simple survival. In order for Derbyshire’s pornographic fantasy to make any kind of sense, though, he has to define the scenario as far removed from critical (he only has “two handguns, for goodness’ sake,” and he’s killed less than three dozen people) and define basic success as much more than survival (“I’d at least take a run at the guy”—at least, meaning, “that’s if I couldn’t take him on with a samurai sword”). Furthermore, make no mistake—Derbyshire is directly blaming the victims, as when he says how much braver he would be “if I thought I was going to die anyway.” In other words, Derbyshire is normalizing the concept of a murderous rampage, and is defining a code of honor for those being killed for no reason.

So okay, that’s the National Review, they’re crazy over there, and the right wing in general seems anxious to assert how well they could martyr themselves to prove a point (as with the British sailors captured by Iran, or the captured journalists who disgrace themselves by saving their own lives—post satirical, news real). Then I see this letter to the New York Times, showing how cruel compassion can be:

To the Editor:

Re “Black Day in the Blue Ridge,” by Lucinda Roy (Op-Ed, April 17):

Struck by unimaginable grief, an otherwise unsentimental man says, “We’ll need to act like a family.” Too bad no one thought of that before.

Cho Seung-Hui was the invisible student. It was clear that he was deeply troubled. But instead of reaching out, those closest to him labeled him strange. Instead of intervening, they dismissed and ignored him.

The shooting spree may have been unthinkable, but the suicide was foreseeable. If it had been solitary and silent, would anyone have cared, or even noticed?

To prevent future massacres, we don’t need metal detectors, armed guards or reflexive campus lockdowns. We need more compassion and more humanity. We need to act more like a family.

Jeff Hersh
Austin, Tex., April 17, 2007

Oh, brother. Listen, I don’t know what ABC Family specials you’ve been watching, but the difference between murderously troubled and relatively stable is not an invitation to a birthday party. “Those closest to him,” as defined by this writer, apparently means those who shared a dorm or a class with him by pure chance, and in fact those people acted just as they should have: they went on the record when he wrote troubling material, the teacher told the appropriate authorities and tried to persuade him to go into counseling, and they otherwise stayed out of his way. With no knowledge of the nature of his problems, and no overtures from him whatsoever, no more should be expected or even advised. The idea that anyone, let alone a college student with no psychological training, has a duty to get closer to a loner who makes those around him uncomfortable; the idea that this was a question of deficient “compassion” and “humanity” (my god!), is the most inappropriate sanctimony I’ve seen since Jerry Falwell blamed gays and atheists for 9/11.

When a tragedy strikes, many people become convinced that it could have been, not just predicted, but easily prevented. This is understandable, and probably preferable to the opposite extreme (“no one could have seen this coming, and we need learn no lessons from it”). People want to assign blame, which is nothing new; what is new is the sense that every nearby citizen must consider themselves conscripted, at all times, to prevent random violence, and that it is fair game to blame them after the fact, even if they or their friends were killed. This is a pathology brought on in part, I have to think, by 9/11 and the story of Flight 93, and more generally by the permanent state of siege that we have been told we are under. The letter writer above says that we need more compassion, but what he betrays is a sense of alienation and paranoia, a belief in a world where some of our fellow citizens kill us while the others selfishly let it happen.

• • •

In Gavin DeBecker’s book on predicting violence, The Gift of Fear, he describes a psychological process often undergone by battered women:

The relationship between violence and death is no longer apparent to them. One woman who’d been at a shelter and then returned to her abuser gives us a good example: She called the shelter late one night to ask if she could come back. As always, the first question the counselor asked was “Are you in danger now?” The woman said no. Later in the call the woman added, almost as an aside, that her husband was outside the room with a gun. Hadn’t she just a moment earlier said she wasn’t in danger? To her, if he was in the same room with the gun or the gun was being held to her head, then she would be in danger. (177)

Without in any way trying to lay claim to the specific victimization and trauma De Becker is describing, this is very close to what I think of when I hear people say that our society is self-destructing. We have passed the point where school shootings are thinkable; we are now able, two days after the massacre, to blame the dead for being cowardly and selfish, and to talk matter-of-factly of what we hope to do when we’re caught in the crossfire, without any realization of how insane and monstrous that sounds.

March 24, 2007

Not how we say cricket

Filed under: Game of Base, General Me, The Gray Lady — tomemos @ 4:58 pm

(Edited March 25, 12:05 p.m.: SI link given, minor fixes made; 1:22 p.m.: link to previous sports post given)

Spring having sprung, I’ve been looking for a way to write about baseball again. Thanks to Shashi Tharoor, and the New York Times Letter Editor, I now have an excuse.

Tharoor is a departing UN under-secretary, and he decided to advance his mission of international goodwill by publishing an Op-Ed in the New York Times that essentially calls Americans stupid suburban drones because we don’t enjoy cricket. Here are some salient highlights:

“Ever since the development of baseball, the ubiquitous and simplified version of the sport, Americans have been lost to the more demanding challenges — and pleasures — of cricket. Because baseball is to cricket as simple addition is to calculus — the basic moves may be similar, but the former is easier, quicker, more straightforward than the latter, and requires a much shorter attention span. And so baseball has captured the American imagination in a way that leaves no room for its adult cousin.”

“…nothing about cricket seems suited to the American national character: its rich complexity, the infinite possibilities that could occur with each delivery of the ball, the dozen different ways of getting out, are all patterned for a society of endless forms and varieties, not of a homogenized McWorld.”

“Cricket is better suited to a country like India, where a majority of the population still consults astrologers and believes in the capricious influence of the planets — so they can well appreciate a sport in which, even more than in baseball, an ill-timed cloudburst, a badly prepared pitch, a lost toss of the coin at the start of a match or the sun in the eyes of a fielder can transform the outcome of a game.”

And finally, his even-handed, diplomatic conclusion:

“So here’s the message, America: don’t pay any attention to us, and we won’t pay any to you. If you wonder, over the coming weeks, why your Indian co-worker is stealing distracted glances at his computer screen every few minutes or why the South African in the next cubicle is taking frequent and furtive bathroom breaks during the working day, don’t even try to understand. You probably wouldn’t get it. You may as well learn to accept that there are some things too special for the rest of us to want to waste them on you.”


First of all, even if I accept at face value the claim that a sport that doesn’t feature the split-fingered fastball, the squeeze play, and double play depth is more complex than the one that does, WHO CARES? This cult of complexity drives me crazy–Hold ‘Em is a better poker game than Stud, because more complex; postmodern writing is smarter than New Critical writing, because more difficult, etc. Obviously as an academic I understand the value of complexity as a means to an end, but the valorization of complexity for its own sake is, ironically enough, simplistic. The sort of complexity that requires a match to go on for 30 hours before a winner is chosen does not necessarily serve the goal of a sport, which is to entertain and excite. Why not 130 hours?

Second, there are certain phrases that I usually hate, but which sometimes are the only way to refer to something. “Politically correct” is one example. “America-bashing” is another, and this piece is the poster child for America-bashing. Tharoor does not give any evidence that he knows anything about baseball (hey, Tharoor, NAME FIVE BASEBALL TEAMS), let alone enough to compare its merits with those of his favorite sport. Instead, he just figures that it’s American, ergo stupid; cricket is not American, ergo smart. Does it occur to him that baseball has been popular here for almost 150 years? Were we a “homogenized McWorld” before McDonalds existed?

That’s but an excerpt of my full rant. But when writing to the New York Times, one has to be pithier:

To the Editor:

If, as it seems, Shashi Tharoor’s goal was to make me feel stupid for preferring baseball to cricket, he would have been better served had he not included the following: “Cricket is better suited to a country like India, where a majority of the population still consults astrologers.”

(As some of you may know, this is the second letter I’ve had published in the New York Times. The first one is located here. A comment calling that letter “simplistic in the extreme” and “BS” is here.)

With two published opinions about sports (remember this?), I believe I am officially a sports pundit (does sports have pundits?), and so here’s another opinion. Fire Joe Morgan has already noted Ozzie Guillen’s descent into small-ball madness, but this item from Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview cries out for further mockery:

Forget that only two teams in the majors outscored the White Sox last season. Or that no club was more productive than Chicago with runners in scoring position. … Manager Ozzie Guillen arrived at training camp still peeved over his team’s offensive performance last season. “We were s—, pathetic,” Guillen growled early in spring training. “We hit too many home runs. Our situational hitting was horrible. This year we’re going back to small ball.”

If you spit out your coffee at the sentence “We hit too many home runs,” give yourself ten points! Hitting home runs is the best thing one can ever do offensively. There is no better offensive result to an at-bat than a home run. “We hit too many home runs” can never, ever, make literal sense. Now, I understand what Guillen is trying to say – as when he says “our situational hitting was horrible,” he means that the team didn’t get enough hits with runners in scoring position. However, as the reporter instructs us (probably ironically) to “forget,” the White Sox were the most productive team with RISP last season. In other words, what the hell are you talking about, Ozzie Guillen?

Also, in the same SI issue, the following praise for Royals 3B prospect Alex Gordon:

“He’s a total stud, a five-tool guy,” says one AL West scout. “And he’s a gamer. I saw him last year, and he dived headfirst into first base to try to beat the throw. In Double A ball!”

Well, diving into first, as opposed to just running through the bag, 1) slows you down, making it harder to beat the throw, and 2) exposes you to injury. So what this scout is saying is, “He already has a bad habit, and I want to encourage him in it.” How long will players keep doing this thing that everyone knows is a bad idea? Probably at least as long as they keep getting meaningless compliments for it.

February 22, 2007

Better call the calling-off off

Filed under: Literati and Cognoscenti, The Gray Lady — tomemos @ 1:43 am

File this under “Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to,” and also under “Requiring Little Comment”: the following letter to the New York Times from Wendy Stoll, a school librarian who (among others) decided not to stock a Newberry-winning children’s book because it contains the word “scrotum” :

As an elementary school librarian quoted in your article, I resent being portrayed as pledging “to ban the book.” There is no mention of serving our community.

I have not stocked the last three Newbery Medal winners because they are not appropriate for the patrons of my library, not because I am interested in banning books.

Hey kids! Bored on a rainy day? No good children’s literature in your library? Play Wendy Stoll Spins, the fun way to couch closed-mindedness in positive language! Here are a couple to get you started:

“I have not hired minorities to fill any of the positions because they are not appropriate for the patrons of my business, not because I am interested in being racist.”

“I have not allowed the man of a different religion to marry my daughter because he is not appropriate for my family, not because I am interested in discrimination.”

“I have not put my gay son in my will because he is not appropriate for the contents of my estate, not because I am interested in disowning him.”

Make your own! The only rule is imagination!

November 8, 2006

Unknown unknowns

Filed under: Laws and Sausages, The Gray Lady — tomemos @ 6:56 pm

The best sentence I’ve read today, in the New York Times no less:

“Mr. Bush portrayed the results as a ‘thumpin’ of Republicans and conceded that as head of the party, he bore part of the responsibility.”

“Thumpin.” That is so charming. I think I’m starting to understand why people like this guy.

June 16, 2004

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit

Filed under: Literati and Cognoscenti, The Gray Lady — tomemos @ 1:14 pm

“All these years later, one somehow thinks of Ulysses as being of that day, June 16, 1904, though it was published in February 1922. It is still as defiant a comedy as ever, as fictional as a gazetteer, willing to make a hash of the genres its author inherited. … Ulysses has come to stand as the apogee of “elitist” literature, a novel that carries a kind of foreboding in its very title, the prospect of a hard road ahead. But there is really no less elitist novel in the English language. Its stuff is the common life of man, woman and child. You take what you can, loping over the smooth spots and pulling up short when you need to. Dedalus may indulge in Latinate fancy, and Joyce may revel in literary mimicry. But the real sound of this novel is the sound of the street a century ago: the noise of centuries of streets echoing over the stones.” —New York Times Editorial, June 16, 2004

“Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.” –James Joyce, Ulysses

Happy Bloomsday, everybody.

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