Friday, 27 December 2013

While Researching Something Else, an Amusing Snippet from the Boston Globe…

While doing some research on a completely unrelated topic (thank you, strange Google algorithms), I came across the following amusing snippet from a column by Alex Beam, which I thought I’d share (it doesn’t really need any more context):

How great is Canada? It’s so great that their prime minister, Stephen Harper, has just published a 370-page book about . . . hockey! The New York Times calls Harper’s “A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey” “a finely detailed history of the struggle between professionalism and amateurism in early 20th-century Ontario hockey.”

Harper, a member of the Society for International Hockey Research, devoted nine years to researching and writing “Game,” prompting this comment from a writer for the Canadian newsmagazine Macleans:

“Governing Canada — now almost a full-time job.”

Thursday, 12 December 2013

President Obama in Comics: An Interesting and Peculiar Selection

President Obama has already featured in a number of comic books: be they comic/graphic adaptations of his life story, campaign-biography style one-shots, or cameos in established series comic series (such as Marc Guggenheim’s Avenging Spider-Man, below). Few presidents have excited the imaginations of such a broad segment of the American public and creative industries as has the 44th president. As someone who is interested in the cross-over areas of politics, media and pop culture, these past five years have been a fertile time for alternative presidential coverage.


Boom Studios’ Barack Obama 2012 Election Issue


Barack Obama: The Comic Book Biography (IDW, 2012); Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man: Election Day Cover, 2008 (above) and interior pages (below)


Most recently, IDW Comics published The Other Dead (currently at issue #4), which is elevator-pitched as “Zombie Animals Devour the World”. The longer-form description sounds like a familiar, fauna-twist on The Walking Dead:

“As a weary community braces for the onslaught of an incoming superstorm, an even more insidious force grows right under their noses! When a sudden outbreak turns every animal in sight into raging, flesh-craving monsters, a colorful cast of characters will have no choice but to contend with THE OTHER DEAD!”

But, as the series unfolds, and the infection spreads across America, a diverse cast of characters – “ranging from a demon-obsessed death metal band to a paranoid survivalist to the President of the United States himself” – will try to contend with and combat “the most unpredictable zombie outbreak in history.” I don’t have any interior page previews featuring the president, but of the 11 cover variants that have thus-far been revealed for the first four issues, there are two (#1 and #4) that feature President Obama prominently, toting some serious firepower:


The Other Dead issues #1-4 are out now, published by IDW Comics. The series is written by Joshua Ortega and Digger T. Mesch, cover artwork is by Kevin Eastman, interior artwork is by Qing Ping Mui, and colouring by Blond.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Practicing What You Preach: The Curious, Broad Appeal of Pope Francis


I am by no means a religious person. I hold deep skepticism and distrust of organised religion – the observable hypocrisies, as well as the historical corruption that has seemingly defined the Catholic Church and other organised, “official” denominations jars with everything I have ever been taught in the mandatory Religious Studies/Education classes I took at school from the age of seven until 16 (not to mention the weekly, also mandatory service attendance). Nevertheless, I find myself agreeing with a lot of what the new pontiff has to say on economic and social issues – more so, in fact, than I find myself agreeing with many politicians. In a recent Foreign Policy newsletter, I followed a link to E.J. Dionne Jr.’s piece on Pope Francis. I am by no means an authority on Catholic or Christian teaching, having focused my attentions instead on the ways in which politicians and others who desire influence and power have perverted the Bible and its message to serve their own ends – televangelists being the primary focus of my disappointment and ire. I nevertheless wanted to share some of Dionne’s and others’ comments on the style and substance that Francis has brought to the Vatican.

“At a time when religion has come to seem synonymous with dogmatic certainty and, in the eyes of many secular observers, fundamentalism, here is arguably the most visible religious leader in the world asserting that questions, not answers, can inspire a vibrant faith.”

As I was writing the first draft of this piece, I noticed that TIME magazine had just announced the selection of Pope Francis as their Person of the Year – “For pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest church to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy…”

Nancy Gibbs, who wrote the article announcing and explaining the choice, started by posing the following question and comment:

“How do you practice humility from the most exalted throne on earth? Rarely has a new player on the world stage captured so much attention so quickly — young and old, faithful and cynical — as has Pope Francis. In his nine months in office, he has placed himself at the very center of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power.”

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Editorial Cartoonists Have Fun with Amazon’s Drones…

It was inevitable, really. The Editorial Cartoons that came out in the wake of Amazon’s announcement that they would like to employ drones in the future for delivering orders are all pretty funny. Here are a selection of the best.

First up, the expected parody of drones’ use in the War on Terror:


Mike Luckovich


And this very cheeky one from Signe Wilkinson

Second up, there were a few commenting on the “expected glitches” that might occur after Amazon implement this strategy:


Stuart Carlson


Nick Anderson (this is probably my favourite)

The inevitable impact Amazon’s drone deliverers would have on the workforce:


Matt Davies

And, finally, a handful of more-seasonal ones:


Steve Breen


Chip Bok


Tom Toles

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Your One-Stop Paragraph for Analysis of and Commentary on Paul Ryan’s Latest Political Hypocrisy… (Or, “The Benefit of Online Mass Media”)


Ah, happier days for the Chuckle Brothers. [Credit: Getty, via Telegraph]

In Alec MacGillis’s latest piece for The New Republic, he offers a perfect one-stop paragraph containing… well, links to everyone else’s analysis of the former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate’s recent attempt at political reinvention. Specifically, his apparently epiphany that there is poverty in America, and that government is not doing enough to alleviate the situation of too many Americans. Here it is:

“As the Washington Post reported yesterday, Paul Ryan has removed himself somewhat from the partisan battleground of the movement to focus on a higher calling: fighting poverty.  Jonathan Chait, Kevin Drum and Jared Bernstein have already taken their crack at this latest turn by the Ayn Rand disciple whose famous budget plan would eviscerate food stamps, Medicaid and other spending on the poor. But one more word needs to be said on this: a defense of Mitt Romney.”

MacGillis goes on to share a number of quotations (and relevant links) for those times when Paul Ryan himself articulated much the same message that Mitt Romney appeared to broadcast whenever he… well, did anything.

The Week also covered the story, with Jon Terbush’s piece “Why liberals aren’t buying Paul Ryan’s new anti-poverty crusade”. As the standfirst pithily notes: “On the one hand: Ryan’s stated desire to fight poverty. On the other: Every budget he’s ever proposed.” His budgets have, of course, often articulated policies that would actually have disastrous effects for the nation’s poor – cuts in food stamp programs, income support, and more, in order to finance the typically myopic Republican fetish of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

MacGillis jokes (maybe) that Romney must have actually acquired his 47% mentality from the various statements of Ryan’s that suggest he, too, sees most Americans as entitled, lazy takers. Well, if this story is any indication, it would also appear that Ryan has developed Romney’s utter lack of media awareness, and that if you say something, the internet will remember.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Bob Gorell on the Media

Catching up on the back-log of Editorial Cartoons that arrive in my inbox on a daily basis. This one, from mid-October, caught my eye:


It’s by Bob Gorell. Replace “the debt ceiling talks” with any other contemporary issue (political, social, international, etc.), and you have an all-purpose commentary piece on the contemporary American news media.

It’s amusing to read contemporary commentators recalling the years of “yellow journalism”, but the more US news media I read and watch, the more I’m starting to think a lot of today’s hosts and opinion writers see those days as a template, or writing guide…

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The American Presidency & Political Cartoons (2)

Following up on a previous post, in which I included an editorial cartoon that suggested the US Mainstream Media were in lock-step behind President Obama, I came across the following page in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit – the historian’s superb book on Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Progressive Journalism:


I thought it was an interesting parallel, to show both that a media-backed presidency is nothing new – nor, for that matter, a “progressive” presidency to receive such support from the press; nor are the methods of portrayal.

The cartoon, “The Crusaders”, is by Carl Hassmann (1869-1933), and it was printed in the February 21, 1906 issue of Puck Magazine. The Library of Congress description of the cartoon is:

“Illustration shows a large group of politicians and journalists as knights on a crusade against graft and corruption. Many carry large pens like a lance; periodical mentioned are ‘Colliers, Harper’s Weekly, Life, Puck, [and] McClure’s’ Magazine.”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a great image file on the internet, but I did manage to get hold of the following colour page-scan (which I have cropped just a little):


Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Theodore Roosevelt Responds to a Lampooning Review. Or, “This Could Probably Never Happen Today, on the Internet”

GoodwinDK-BullyPulpitUKAnyone who has been reading this blog for a while, will undoubtedly have come across the fact that I have a strong interest in Theodore Roosevelt, his presidency and his time (academic and also personal interest). I am fascinated by the period of American history between (approx.) 1880 and the start of World War I.

At the moment, I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book – the exhaustively-researched, excellent The Bully Pulpit. The book is about Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and “the Golden Age of Journalism”. Today, I came across an amusing passage, which I thought I would share.

Throughout his life, Theodore Roosevelt, alongside his storied career in public service, was a prolific author – between 1882-1919, he would publish 45 books and collections (of essays and letters). One of his books, The Rough Riders, was a memoir of his war experiences on Cuba. Finley Peter Dunne was a writer and humourist from Chicago, who wrote the nationally syndicated “Mr. Dooley” satires and lampoons…

In the fall of 1899, a copy of The Rough Riders, Roosevelt’s wartime memoir, came across Dunne’s desk. “Mr. Dooley’s” book review in Harper’s Weekly mocked Roosevelt’s propensity for placing himself at the center of all action: “Tis Th’ Biography iv a Hero by Wan who Knows. Tis Th’ Darin’ Exploits iv a Brave Man be an Actual Eye Witness,” Mr. Dooley observed. “If I was him, I’d call th’ book, ‘Alone in Cubia.’” Three days after this satirical assessment amused readers across the country, Roosevelt wrote to Dunne: “I regret to state that my family and intimate friends are delighted with your review of my book. Now I think you owe me one; and I shall exact that when you next come east to pay me a visit. I have long wanted the chance of making your acquaintance.” (pp.257-8)

GoodwinDK-BullyPulpitUSThe full review is the first in Mr. Dooley’s Philosophy (which is available as a PDF online – pp.13-18). collected Dunne was clearly touched by Roosevelt’s letter, and in his reply to Roosevelt, accepting the invitation, he also said:

“... the way you took Mr. Dooley is a little discouraging. The number of persons who are worthwhile firing at is so small that as a matter of business I must regret the loss of one of them. Still if in losing a target I have, perhaps, gained a friend I am in after all.” (p.258)

Dunne never had to regret the loss of TR as a target, however. The reviewer continued to poke fun at TR (“the nation’s premiere target” as Goodwin calls him) for years to come, and the two remained friends throughout.

Today, when an author responds to a negative or critical review – especially on the internet – it never seems to go well for the author (see, for example, who-knows-how-many self-published authors lashing out at bloggers; or even the more recent, bizarre-and-quite-pathetic reaction to Ben Aaronovitch’s polite pointing out of a review’s factual misunderstanding). The above response and exchange between Dunne and Roosevelt… It could never happen today. Which is a real shame.

[I am currently reading The Bully Pulpit for review on Politics Reader. The book was provided by Goodwin’s UK publisher, Viking/Penguin. In the US, the book is published by Simon & Schuster.]

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Obama, the Media, and US Politics


There is so much going on in the above editorial cartoon by Glenn McCoy (from October 2nd). It not only portrays Obama as some Soviet-style dictator (his outfit is hard to mistake for anything else), but also shows the media in lock-step in support of his agenda. Now, there are plenty of examples of how the media has rushed to defend the administration on scandals (real or imagined). And certainly, there are some included there who are avowed left-leaning outlets (MSNBC, there on the far left front). At the same time, however, there are times when the media has attacked the administration on certain policies – if you wanted to create a heated debate at one of my previous employers, The Nation (on the left, and very proud of it), one of the easiest ways was to bring up the administration’s apparent addiction to drone deployment – a story that took longer than expected to grab the attentions of political editors in the rest of the media.

The role of the media in politics, and government officials’ attempts to manipulate it, have long been an interest of mine – and I dedicated two chapters of my PhD thesis to the subject (as part of a pluralist approach to foreign policy analysis). I’m re-working the first of the two thesis chapters (a theoretical and empirical survey of the media’s role in the foreign policy-making process) for publication. It is an issue that many see as ‘decided’, and therefore undeserving of study. Partly, I believe, this is because the originators of political pluralist theory were writing when radio and newspapers were the only real mediums of political news dissemination. Robert Dahl, the most prominent and comprehensive writer on pluralist theory (and originator for most of what is still used), barely touched upon the role of the media in a pluralist society. It is my ultimate intention to address this oversight – at least in part.

However, given the hyper-pluralistic nature of American politics, I would actually argue that it is almost immune to a generalised theoretical analysis. Instead, almost every issue requires constant attention and multiple approaches, in order to properly ascertain the forces at work. Since finishing my thesis, the roles of Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms (especially in election seasons) has only grown.

The GOP & the ACA [Editorial Cartoon]

Here’s another great cartoon, this time from Tom Toles (I believe first published in the Washington Post?), from October 2nd 2013:


The USA, the ACA & the NSA [Editorial Cartoon]

This is a great Editorial Cartoon from Jim Morin (The Miami Herald), from October 30th 2013:


Monday, 28 October 2013

China & the Papacy Are… Similar?


Credit: The Guardian

This evening, a rather interesting link from The Economist popped up in my inbox. It’s from their Analects blog, and the piece is a comparison between Chinese leaders and the Vatican. The article, as the writer(s) notes, is borne from a number of “amusing if inconsequential parallels between the leaders of China and the leaders of the Catholic church.” It’s a theme the blog has returned to a couple of times (fun with a headline for example, and again when the papal conclave met at the same time as the Chinese leadership pageant). It’s a playful theme, but it’s also an interesting one.

“… [N]ow that Pope Francis and Xi Jinping have had time to settle in at their respective helms, it turns out there are rather more substantial comparisons to add to the superficial ones. Any China-watcher who pays attention to recent news from the Vatican cannot help but notice them.”

The most recent example of a parallel is the German “Bishop of Bling”, who spent millions of dollars/euros to pimp out his residence and other church buildings. The pope, naturally decided to suspend the felonious monk. The ostentation exhibited in this bishop’s spending was certainly against all church teachings, and especially the current pope’s focus on frugal living. Longtime China watchers should have no trouble seeing how Analects drew a parallel to the Chinese leadership – after ten years of researching and studying Chinese politics and international relations, an almost constant thread is official corruption. Analects points to new Chinese President Xi’s crack-down on the lavish lifestyles of Chinese officials – fancy banquets and frivolous junkets have been ruled out for Party members, and have been admonished to be frugal, and to “resolutely curb hedonism and extravagance”. Another example that the Analects writer could have pointed to was the New York Times exposé about Wen Jiabao’s family’s incredible wealth, which was amassed largely as a result of family and political connections. Chinese history is littered with examples of this – indeed, part of the whole reason for Mao Zedong’s revolution was the decadence and corruption of the regime he eventually toppled. Both the Catholic Church and Chinese Communist Party have preached frugality and sacrifice. The leadership of neither can really be said to have practiced what they’ve preached.

“Pope Francis and Mr Xi both claim to stand for the cause of transparency. So far the pope seems to have done more about it, ordering a clean-up at the secretive and scandal-ridden Vatican bank, which this month published its accounts for the first time in its 125-year history. But China in its own way is experimenting with measures aimed at increasing transparency. There are pilot schemes under way that would require officials to disclose their personal assets.”

“With all they seem to have in common, it is a pity that Mr Xi and Pope Francis are unable to get together for a chat,” Analects writes. Given that there are no official relations between the world’s most populous nation and the West’s most populous religion (is that right? I’m not 100% sure – although, the population of China is roughly the same as the number of Christians in the world).

The article, while perhaps flippant at the start, finishes on a strong point, regarding the CCP’s treatment of Chinese Christians (and religious persecution as a whole). The Guardian’s Nick Spencer offered a similar article, comparing the two leaders as well. It’s another good article, and well-worth reading.

“Of course, there are a few differences. Xi Jinping is married to a celebrity singer, Peng Liyuan, whereas Pope Francis isn't. Xi Jinping is an atheist whereas one presumes Pope Francis isn't. However, surely the most significant difference is that one of the men has power, whereas the other has authority. The division isn't quite as clear as that, of course. Pope Francis has the power to promote and to sack within clerical ranks, whereas Xi Jinping, despite having no democratic mandate, has a certain authority in that de facto he speaks for a billion of his countrymen.”

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Obamacare “Doomed from the Start”, according to CFR…

The roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, has been covered ad infinitum by the US media. As can be expected from such a lightning-rod topic, not all the coverage has been praiseworthy – sometimes, the complaints and critiques have been legitimate, but other times not (unsurprisingly, Sean Hannity’s coverage on Fox News has come under considerable scrutiny).

A couple of days ago, the Council on Foreign Relations published an article by Kimberly J. Morgan, “Doomed from the Start”, which I thought was rather interesting. Morgan pays attention to the general sense that the rollout was not a success. The summary from the email newsletter, which doesn’t appear in the article itself, was pretty good:

“Obamacare is a typically American concoction: a complicated program jerry-rigged to appeal to people with little faith in government. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy — a messy government system that only fuels deeper cynicism about the welfare state.”

From the article, and a little longer:

“But the fact that the White House is having trouble implementing Obamacare also should not come as a particular surprise. It is not that the Obama administration is especially incompetent. Rather, the program it is charged with executing is a complex public-private hybrid that has no real precedent elsewhere in the world. The blend is purely American: Policymakers in the United States have a history of jerry-rigging complicated programs of this sort precisely because they have little faith in government. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy that fuels only deeper public cynicism about the welfare state.”

It’s an interesting, short piece, which discusses the unique attributes of the program, the global context, and the complexity of the law, and the “labyrinthine quality of U.S. social policy”. If you’re interested, I’d recommend you go read it.

“The larger irony here is that administering a complex public-private health-care system often requires more government, not less. Yet the very same impulse that created this system also impairs the government agencies that could effectively oversee it. The programs, as a result, are messy and confusing. It should be no surprise that trust in government is so low. Obamacare’s early difficulties may provide an easy target for politicians, but those politicians have only to look into the mirror to see who bears responsibility.”

Friday, 18 October 2013

Reading “The Operators” by Michael Hastings (Plume/Phoenix)

Hastings-OperatorsI finally got around to reading Michael Hastings’s gripping, sensational and provocative The Operators, his book on the United States’ troubled, continuing adventures in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon-White House conflicts on the campaign’s execution. It’s a few years old, now, but I thought I’d write something up nevertheless. It is, I believe, one of the best, most accessible books on the subject, and would therefore recommend it to everyone. It is a story of dysfunction, intra-governmental conflict. It is also, a story that “changed history”, as Rolling Stone referred to Hasting’s reporting on General Stanley A. McChrystal and his crew.

The article that this grew out of, published in Rolling Stone, resulted in General Stanley McChrystal’s ousting: “The Runaway General” (June 22nd, 2010). The article certainly didn’t offer a flattering picture of President Obama and his administration. That being said, much of the media furor (and therefore damage done) took place before the article was available to the general public. The whole affair smacked of a media-induced scandal frenzy. Yellow journalism at its worst, perhaps. If the article had just come out, I have no doubt McChrystal would have just received another wrap on the knuckles, as he had before, when he said Vice President Biden’s proposed counterinsurgency plan was “short-sighted” (see below). Instead, after a week or more of frenzied, ecstatic media coverage of a scandal for which the general public didn’t have easy access to the cause, it was far too late for anyone to stick up for McChrystal, or do anything but send him packing.

I will accept that, after reading so much coverage of the as-yet-not-public article, my expectations had been raised extraordinarily – I was expecting some fire-and-brimstone vitriol and diatribes from the General and his staff. What was included was certainly not flattering, but after the media-hype, it felt a little bit underwhelming, ultimately.

Now, if The Operators had been published first, that would have been an entirely different matter. The book is filled-to-bursting with criticism, examples of Administration incompetence, super-sized egos without the intelligence or knowledge to back up their arrogance, and any number of other examples that could have given more legitimate grounds to fire a general (or, at least, ask him to quietly retire). Hastings presents plenty of examples of indelicate and unpolitic utterances from the General and his hero-worshiping staff members. And yet, to my eyes and mind, most of what was said to Hastings (R.I.P.) was... well, entirely expected.


Tuesday, 8 October 2013

National Weather Service gets Subliminal about Shutdown

I caught this over on the eclectically-excellent, who picked up on it from the Washington Post. I thought I’d share it, as it’s an example of levity and cheekiness that rarely come together in a political news story.

The National Weather Service is continuing to work, unaffected by the US Government Shutdown. But, 3,935 NWS employees were kept at their desks during the Shutdown – “by far the organization with the most employees excluded from a possible shutdown.” Unfortunately, the employees, who “forecast the weather, issue warnings, support radar, satellite and other weather monitoring, and are involved in computer model operations”, aren’t actually sure when they might next get paid.

In this environment of confusion and no-doubt frustration, an enterprising scamp at the NWS’s Anchorage office decided to express the general displeasure through a hidden message in the Forecast Discussion. Here’s the ‘evidence’:


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

CNN to GOP Reps: Will you take a pay cut to get a Continuing Resolution passed?

This has been doing the rounds, I’m sure, but I thought it was a good example of Representatives being completely divorced from reality. On Monday, CNN host Ashleigh Banfield grilled two GOP representatives about the impending government shutdown. She put a simple question to Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA):

“So you are both paid $174,000 a year, and that is the salary… Would you be prepared to add some rider or amendment on to a continuing resolution that would take you out of the essential services category and stop payment on your paychecks in order to get a continuing resolution through — and yes or no?”

Naturally, neither representative was able to answer the yes-or-no question, and instead Blackburn wittered something about the national debt (Rush to Talking Points for the Win?), and Rohrabacher just stood there like a big galoot.

Given that the shutdown will cut off pay for hundreds of thousands of government employees who are deemed “non-essential”, and given that this whole SNAFU surrounds some exaggerated and (often) demented ideas about government funding and spending, I think this is an entirely valid question. Not to mention, an entirely valid penalty – they obviously cannot do their jobs. So why shouldn’t they be penalised for helping shut the government down? Too often, members of Congress and the Senate are exempt from penalties that should result from their own fecklessness or bad behaviour. Surely the first place to look for savings in a time like this, would be in the House? [As I have clarified in the past, during similar disputes in the US Government, I do only aim this at Representatives’ salaries, and not their staffers.]

Since this clip aired, the US Government has, of course, now been shut down. Roll on the Debt Ceiling Crisis! It’s going to be another end-of-year carnival of infantile posturing and idiocy on the Hill…

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

“Floating City” by Sudhir Venkatesh (Allen Lane)

VenkateshS-FloatingCityA thoroughly engaging study of hustlers, strivers, dealers, call girls and other lives in illicit New York

After his insider’s study of Chicago crack gangs electrified the academy, Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh spent a decade immersed in New York’s underbelly, observing the call girls, drug dealers, prostitutes and other strivers that make up this booming underground economy.

Amidst the trust-funder cocktail parties, midtown strip clubs, and immigrant-run sex shops, he discovers a surprisingly fluid and dynamic social world – one that can be found in global cities everywhere – as traditional boundaries between class, race and neighbourhood dissolve. In Floating City, Venkatesh explores New York from high to low, tracing the invisible threads that bind a handful of ambitious urban hustlers, from a Harvard-educated socialite running a high-end escort service to a Harlem crack dealer adapting to changing demands by selling cocaine to hedge fund managers and downtown artists. In the process, and as he questions his own reasons for going deeper into this subterranean world, Venkatesh finds something truly unexpected – community.

Floating City is Venkatesh’s journey through the “vast invisible continent” of New York's underground economy – a thriving yet largely unseen world that exists in parallel to our own, at the heart of every city.

I first came across Sudhir Venkatesh’s name in Freakonomics – as, I’m sure, did many non-sociologists. In Levitt’s book, Venkatesh contributed a small selection of his work with the crack gangs in Chicago. This study would go on to form much of Gang Leader For A Day, the author’s previous book. Venkatesh is a rare academic: he can write in such an engaging, riveting style, that his books read almost like novels. In Floating City, the ethnographer turns his gaze on New York City and its underground economy. This is, while flawed in minor ways, easily one of the best non-fiction works I’ve read in a number of years.

Friday, 20 September 2013

A Fascinating Photo–Modern Technology Meets Modern Warfare

I spotted this on The Atlantic’s website, as part of their photo-essay “Non-Chemical Warfare: Violence Continues in Syria”. It’s a superb shot, not only for the access the photographer had, but because of what it shows – a mortar team using an iPad to help them set up their shot (or “lob”, really, given how mortars work). I find it fascinating that the combatants have adapted the iPad to their battlefield needs – I can’t say for definite how specifically they are using it (perhaps some sort of angling app?), but… Well, it’s just a great shot.


Photo Credit, from Atlantic: A member of the ‘Ansar Dimachk’ Brigade, part of the Asood Allah Brigade which operates under the Free Syrian Army, uses an iPad during preparations to fire a homemade mortar at one of the battlefronts in Joubar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, on September 15, 2013. (Reuters/Mohamed Abdullah)

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

“I would like you to put my trauma center out of business…”

A clip from yesterday’s Rachel Maddow Show, addressing the mass-shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. At the 7:30 mark (sorry, still can’t get the Clip-&-Share to work), the Chief Medical Officer of the Washington Trauma Center, Dr. Janis Orlowski, gives an emotional response to the mass-shooting at the Navy Yard. (Her remarks start at 5:38, and go on until around 8:50.) I highly recommend you watch this clip:

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“You see what I call ‘senseless trauma’. There is something evil in our society that we as Americans have to work to eradicate… there’s something wrong here, when we have these multiple shootings… We have to work together to get rid of it. I would like you to put my trauma center out of business, I really would… We just cannot have one more shooting with so many people killed. We’ve gotta figure this out…”

Just to close out this post, I thought I’d share the final segment, from the same episode of The Rachel Maddow Show – “Mass shootings part of how we live now”. As a non-American, I can only look on with sadness and, yes, disgust, at how pro-gun fetishists in the United States refuse to see the connection between high rates of gun violence and the easy access to guns, not to mention the Hollywood-esque glamorization of firearms. This doesn’t happen in countries with stricter, tighter, or total gun control. It is an observable, quantifiable fact. And yet, to discuss guns with an American (of any political stripe) invariably leads to patronising and dismissive responses – or, less frequently, hostile attempts at ridicule.

“Are we supposed to believe that Americans are just more violent by nature?” I asked a fellow intern in New York, September 2012. “Maybe we are,” he replied.

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Sunday, 15 September 2013

American Right’s New-Found Love for Putin Should Not be Surprising…

… in fact, it’s easily explainable, and perhaps even over-due.

This is an interesting segment from Friday’s The Rachel Maddow Show (below). In it, she discusses how the GOP and American Conservative RIght has falled head-over-heels for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Maddow reports that Scott Lively, the evangelical who supported the Ugandan ‘Kill the Gays’ law, “is now suggesting American Conservatives should move to Russia, specifically because of Russia’s awesome anti-gay laws”.

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This right-wing love for Putin can be understood, though, when framed within the Republican Party’s existing pathologies. Specifically, their love of Manly Men. As chronicled in Glenn Greenwald’s Great American Hypocrites, the Right just loves male public figures who walk “tough”, act “manly”, or presents themselves as a “He-Man” (as one pundit mentions in the video clip above). Putin fulfills all of the stereotypes that sends the American Right swooning. George W. Bush adopted his Cowboy Aspect in order to distance himself from Kennebunkport and Northern prejudices, to inject testosterone into his campaign – interestingly, he spends his post-presidency years painting pictures of small dogs, which I can’t imagine would have gone over too well with the Red Meat Conservatives…

In the relevant chapter in Greenwald’s book (which is very good, if repetitive and slightly frothing), he offers a litany of Republican figures trying to up-man-ify themselves. So when I see the way Putin acts – everything from his near-endless flow of topless photos of his doing Manly things… It was only really a matter of time before the GOP fell head-over-heels for him, and especially during a major policy event that features President Obama and Secretary Kerry as their opposition – two American statesmen who certainly do not conform to the Republican Manly Man Ideal.

[I’m working on a review of the aforementioned Greenwald book. Hopefully in a week or two.]

Thursday, 12 September 2013

More Proof John Boehner is Bad at his Job? (This time, not from TRMS!)

US Syria Boehner

Credit: AP

Rachel Maddow has run a semi-frequent segment on her week-nightly show on MSNBC, taking a look at the various ways in which John Boehner is just bad at his job. Yesterday, however, Politico ran an article by Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan that supports this hypothesis, too, without articulating it explicitly. [In Politico-lingo, a hat-tip to Molly Ball at The Atlantic who also wrote about this.]

The Politico article, entitled “John Boehner, Eric Cantor struggle to lead House”, reports (in its opening sentence) that,

There are times when it looks like Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor have no idea how to run the House Republican Conference.

Now, as someone firmly of the Democratic persuasion, I think this has been evident for years (and not only because Rachel Maddow has done such a good job of chronicling Boehner’s fecklessness as Speaker). Persistent, “quixotic” and non-binding (i.e. symbolic but utterly-useless except as an electoral prop) attempts to defund Obamacare, and a Tea Party revolt against a government funding bill, bode ill for the future, and cast a pall over Boehner’s and Eric Cantor’s ability to keep their historically-focused party in line. It used to be the Democrats who couldn’t pull together often enough to push through their desired legislation and agendas, because they were too disparate. Now, however, it appears that the Republican Tea Party caucus is intent on thumbing its nose at, well, everybody.

According to the Politico piece,

A clearly frustrated Boehner seemed to realize that he leads a conference where no plan is quite good enough. There are frequently about 30 Republicans who oppose leadership’s carefully crafted plans — just enough to mess things up. A reporter asked him whether he has a new idea to resolve the government funding fight. He laughed and said, “No.”

“Do you have an idea?” he asked the reporters. “They’ll just shoot it down anyway.”

It’s nice that the Republican leadership is now experiencing a bit of its own medicine. This has, after all, been the GOP’s strategy throughout the Obama presidency…

It looks like we’re getting ready for a re-run of the previous government-shutdown-circus, too:

To help pass a government-funding bill out of the House, GOP insiders expect they’ll have to take an increasingly hard-line position that will be irreconcilable with the Senate and White House preferences. That increases the chances of a government shutdown at the end of the month. GOP leadership aides say they’ll still work to gather support on the original bill next week.

GOPLeadership-BoehnerGavel Reuters201309

Credit: Reuters


UPDATE: John Boehner’s future and time as Speaker (and whether or not he is bad at his job) was also discussed on UP with Steve Kornacki (September 14th):

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“The United States Military does not do ‘pinpricks’…”

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The quotation in the title starts at 08:13, and is a response to members of Congress who “have said, there’s no point in simply doing a pinprick strike in Syria.” The President is right, of course – the US Military doesn’t do “pinpricks” well. At the same time, I have always felt concerned with the idea that raining missiles down on a country from afar will do anything but create chaos in the targeted nation.

[Incidentally, the only decent place to get the transcript, on a single web-page, is on the New York Times website. The other main news sites insist on splitting it over multiple pages without a Single Page option.]

Not a bad speech, but not wholly convincing. I have never been a supporter of war, and only more so in the wake of the Iraq debacle. My general position on the use of force, and the use of force by the United States in particular, are perhaps too long and convoluted to include in this blog post, but I thought I’d offer a couple of the key take-away comments from the president’s marks.

“Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that’s so complicated and where, as one person wrote to me, those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights? It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists. But al-Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death. The majority of the Syrian people and the Syrian opposition we work with just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.”

This is a worthy sentiment, but what does “we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution” entail? How would the United States do that? President Obama continued,

“I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.”

I am deeply skeptical about this premise. I have yet to read a convincing argument that ‘proves’ air-strikes are enough to smack a dictator down. It hasn’t exactly worked in the past – Saddam Hussein, whose regime was a long-time target for US airstrikes, stopped for a bit, then started again, for example.

Andrea Mitchell picks up some of this in the post-interview portion of the segment, above. And, I must say, Rachel Maddow provides the best commentary in the discussion afterwards, with Chris Hayes a close second. [As an aside, I strongly recommend their latest books – Drift and Twilight of the Elites, respectively.]

“… several people wrote to me, we should not be the world’s policeman. I agree. And I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions. Over the last two years my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warnings and negotiations. But chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.

“However, over the last few days we’ve seen some encouraging signs in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin. The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons and even said they’d join the chemical weapons convention, which prohibits their use.”

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

“We should not be the world’s policeman”, Obama says. And yet…

From All In, September 10th:

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Katrina van den Heuvel does an excellent job in this segment – calm, measured, intelligent suggestions. She should be invited onto these shows more often. The show continued, with broader analysis and clips of President Obama’s speech:

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Tuesday, 10 September 2013

“This Town” by Mark Leibovich (Blue Rider Press)

Leibovich-ThisTownTwo Parties and a Funeral (Plus, plenty of valet parking!) in America’s gilded capital

Tim Russert is dead. But the room was alive.

Big Ticket Washington Funerals can make such great networking opportunities. Power mourners keep stampeding down the red carpets of the Kennedy Center, handing out business cards, touching base. And there is no time to waste in a gold rush, even (or especially) at a solemn tribal event like this.

Washington – This Town – might be loathed from every corner of the nation, yet these are fun and busy days at this nexus of big politics, big money, big media, and big vanity. There are no Democrats and Republicans anymore in the nation’s capital, just millionaires. That is the grubby secret of the place in the twenty-first century. You will always have lunch in This Town again. No matter how many elections you lose, apologies you make, or scandals you endure.

In This Town, veteran reporter Mark Leibovich (currently chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine), presents a somewhat-reluctant insider’s account and examination of America’s ruling class in their natural habitat: Washington, D.C. The book is catnip for political junkies and anyone who studies politics, policy-making and the media. These are three things that have fascinated me for years (academically and vicariously), and I found this book fascinating. It is not perfect, and there was the occasional whiff of the author protesting a bit too much about his own place in This Town’s ecosystem, but it also offers some fascinating insight into the movers and shakers in D.C.

A Very Bizarre Segment from ‘The Last Word’, in Typical Lawrence O’Donnell Style. [With an eventual point, but made by the guest…]

This is such a badly constructed approach by Lawrence O’Donnell. “What is wrong with you?” he asks Anthony Weiner, first thing, which naturally completely flummoxes the interviewee. This is a very strange, highly-combative interview. It’s typical of O’Donnell’s style, he bulldozes his guest, and doesn’t really make any point.

He says Weiner seems incapable of running for public office (a “relentless” pursuit), then effectively tells Weiner off for working as a lobbyist and says he should have done charity work. I did have to smile when told Lawrence to “Chillax, buddy!” Weiner rightly tells Lawrence to ask the question he wants answered.

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“This can’t be good TV for anybody,” Weiner says. Spot on. It was just surreal. Neither man came across well – Lawrence as a bully, who asked a question without bothering to allow his guest to answer it; and Weiner as a frustrated, eventually glib, candidate for mayor of New York. It was, frankly, surreal. And terrible television. The interview continued in a second segment:

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Weiner is, finally, allowed to respond, in the second segment. He picks apart O’Donnell’s premise, too. I can’t but feeling that I could have done a much better job as host of this show. Ari Melber, who has guest-hosted the show from time-to-time, did a much better job, too. Maybe someone needs to tell Lawrence to dial it down a little bit? It’s very strange to see the host act this way, given what he wrote for The West Wing and his oft-stated issues with the right-wing media and Fox News’ aggressive, combative approach to reporting “news”.

Lawrence O’Donnell’s point about Weiner’s belief he isn’t going to lose was infantile and ridiculous. The host says Weiner’s vocal confidence is “proof” of his pathology. Which political candidate ever vocalises doubt, regardless of how obvious their impending defeat may be?

Terrible example of broadcast “journalism”, but a perfect example of media personality bullying. It descended into petty, school-yard sniping. Perhaps it was staged, political theatre? I doubt it.

[Full disclosure: I was Ari Melber’s assigned intern at The Nation for three months at the end of 2012.]

Passing Comment on Zimmerman’s Latest Brush with the Law.

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I can’t help but seeing clear evidence of violent tendencies and gun-fetishism on display. Hearing and reading more about Zimmerman’s continued ‘problems’ (for want of a better word), the portrayal is one of someone who has developed a sense of invincibility and, perhaps, a false sense of how much he can get away with. Certainly, as Hayes covers in the second segment, below, he appears to have been emboldened by his acquittal. He has not, as Joy Reid states, “behaved like a man chastened by the act of killing someone”.

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“The visit to the gun manufacturer, to me… that was the moment when I was, like, ‘No, no, no, no…’” Chris Hayes says. I can’t help but agree. Gun-fetishism is never comfortable to see, or read and hear about. But this instance is even more chilling, in its way. The fact that Zimmerman got his gun back after he used it to hunt Trayvon Martin continues to stun me (not to mention many people I have spoken to – American and not).

“… the presence of a gun is transformational on all interactions between humans in the midst of conflict… the presence of the gun absolutely alters the calculus of everything that happens between two human beings involved in any kind of conflict.”


Yesterday, Rachel Maddow also had a segment about the NRA and guns in America. The NRA is flexing its muscles politically, again…

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