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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

NY Post vs. NY Times

Here is an excerpt from the Post account by Ray Walser of what happened yesterday in Honduras:

"Honduras is a poor nation, and got worse on Zelaya's watch. But rather than blame the global downturn or his own failures, Zelaya sought to rally the masses behind him by fingering the nation's elites as behind the nation's woes.

"He sought vindication by ordering a national referendum that, he said, could alter the Constitution and allow him to run for re-election. And when every free, democratic institution from the Electoral Tribunal to the Supreme Court said no to his proposal, Zelaya pushed ahead anyway.

"Last week, he called the military on the carpet, demanding it support his referendum. Gen. Romeo Vasquez, the head of the armed forces, considered this an illegal order, and refused to play ball -- so Zelaya fired him. (He accepted the defense minister's resignation, too.)

"The next day, the Supreme Court ruled the firing unjustified. Zelaya refused to obey its decision....He'd set Sunday as the day of his contra-constitutional referendum. Instead, the Congress, the courts and the military stepped in and pulled the plug on Zelaya's maneuverings.

"They sent him packing on a plane to Costa Rica. Then, in a deliberate, bipartisan manner, they selected a civilian president to serve through scheduled elections in November."

Pretty straightforward.

The NY Times account was headlined, "In Honduras Coup, Ghosts of Past US Policies." The first two paragraphs:

"President Obama on Monday strongly condemned the ouster of Honduras's President as an illegal coup that set a 'terrible precedent' for the region, as the country's new government defied international calls to return the toppled president to power and clashed with thousands of protesters.

"'We do not want to go back to a dark past,' Mr. Obama said, in which military coups override elections. 'We always want to stand with democracy'."

It was not until the twelfth paragraph that the ghost-busting Times mentioned Zelaya's firing of the head of the military and the Supreme Court's decision that his referendum was illegal. The Times never even mentioned the Electoral Tribunal's judgment against Zelaya.

Imagine the following scenario. In early 2008 George W. Bush announced that he was going to flout term limits and arrange for a referendum to change the law. Congress said no. The Supreme Court said no. So Bush then asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to support him. They said no, so Bush fired them. So Congress and the Supreme Court then decided to call in the National Guard to escort him out of the White House and fly him up to Canada.

Bush would obviously never have tried this. But if he had, do you think the NY Times -- and Barack Obama -- would be decrying a subsequent "coup"? No, they would have expressed outrage against Bush every step of the way.

There's no question that the CIA has meddled in Central American politics in years past. But count on the Times to excoriate past US administrations for that before even mentioning the naked power grab the leftist President of Honduras was up to just last week.

The funniest part of the whole affair was how Zelaya had treated Hillary Clinton when she had traveled to Honduras for an OAS conference.

The Times reported, "He reportedly annoyed her when he summoned her to a private room late in the night after her arrival and had her shake hands with his extended family."

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, anyone who annoys Hillary is rendering perfectly poetic justice.

On the other hand, anyone who acts so self-indulgently should be overthrown just on principle, power grab or not.

Supreme Court decision

I scoured the New York Times this morning in an effort to find one convincing argument against the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in favor of Ricci. I didn't find one on the front page. I did find one inside, though.

The front page merely quoted Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion: "Congress endeavored to promote equal opportunity in fact, and not simply in form. The damage today's decision does to that objective is untold."

Wrong, Ruth. You're confusing equality of opportunity with equality of results. Two different things entirely. It's not as if the black firefighters who took that test had to answer harder questions, or had their tests graded on a different scale. New Haven bent over backwards to find a test which contained no racially discriminatory material.

Those who use the phrase "equality of opportunity" to mean "equality of results" betray their dishonesty by their misuse of words. Usually, the best clue to which side is right and which wrong on an issue can be determined by how much they must mangle the language to make their case. When it comes to abortion, those who are for it call themselves pro-choice, and the opposition, anti-choice. Those against it call themselves pro-life, and their opposition, anti-life. Neither set of words is misleading or obfuscatory. And both sides have valid points. (I'm anti-life myself.)

The larger issue at stake in New Haven, affirmative action, is an obvious euphemism. The very nebulousness of the phrase shows clearly that its proponents want to be identified with something positive, but don't want it to be called exactly what it is: racial set-asides. "Affirmative action" by itself simply means, an action which affirms something, as in, "I affirmed my hatred of my neighbor the other day by running him over with my car." After all, that is an action, as well as an affirmation.

However, upon looking at the inside pages of the Times, I did come across a good argument against the New Haven test (if not the Supreme Court decision):

"In New Haven, city officials....said there was another, trusted method to select firefighting lieutenants and captains that posed less of a disadvantage to blacks and Hispanics. That method relies largely on assessment centers where applicants are evaluated in simulated real-life situations to see how they would handle them. Supporters of the idea say that assessment centers do far better than written exams in measuring leadership and communications skills and an applicant's ability to handle emergencies."

It's hard to disagree with this. Certainly a large part of what makes a good firefighter, and more importantly, a good leader of firefighters, is the ability to handle oneself in a stressful situation -- such as battling a four alarm blaze. It's one thing to perform well with a pencil while sitting at a desk in a quiet room. It's another to keep one's head and not panic when lives are at stake. And a paper and pencil test doesn't measure such things as the ability to yell loudly, i.e., have one's voice heard above the din (otherwise known as "communications skills").

There's a reason they have Hell Week for aspiring Navy Seals. To be an elite soldier, one must show a certain physical fortitude in the face of cold temperatures, sleeplessness, hunger, and other unpleasant conditions. Seals must also demonstrate the ability to hold their breaths for a certain length of time, and to stay calm when they lose their air supply underwater. And they must be ready to parachute from extremely high altitudes. Seals-in-training also have a fair amount of classwork. I have no doubt that I could, after the requisite amount of studying, pass the written exam easily. I have equally little doubt that I'm not up to the part which requires not panicking while losing one's face mask and oxygen supply in cold, murky water.

In any case, assessment centers for firefighters are a great idea, assuming they mirror the types of decisions that must be made in real firefighting. I'm not surprised that blacks do better in that type of exam. My experience has been that whites tend -- on average -- to be more nervous and panicky than blacks, even if they do better -- on average -- on more purely intellectual tests. If these assessment centers result in proportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics being promoted, great. If they result in a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics promoted, that's fine too. But if they should ever result in a disproportionate number of whites being promoted, that shouldn't be reason to throw the results out, any more than if blacks and Hispanics pass those exams disproportionately.

May the best men win.

In the meantime, throwing out the results of the previous New Haven test is changing the rules of the game after it is over, which seems less than sporting.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Guns

Two Fridays ago my son and I went for a swimming workout. He comes along mostly just to humor me. It was the first day of his summer vacation, but he wasn't enjoying himself, so I felt bad for him. I actually felt bad enough to take him afterward to a place I despise but he enjoys: the firing range.

When we got there and Johnny had to choose a gun, he of course opted for a .357 Magnum. Johnny's not 18 yet, so I had to go into the gallery with him. We'd been there before, and once again, I found the entire experience extremely unpleasant. Each time he pulled the trigger, there was a very bright flash, and a mini-explosion. Even with ear muffs, the noise was painfully loud. I could feel the shock waves from the gun in my hair, my chest, and even in my hips. Every shot felt like a small grenade going off at fairly close quarters.

I found the thought of one of those bullets entering my body -- the purpose for which they were designed -- highly unappealing. And all it would have taken was one of these people in the range turning to the side before he pulled the trigger, instead of facing front as he was supposed to.

What kind of people are attracted to this stuff? The guys I saw at the range (and the gun shop connected to it) looked fairly normal. None would have attracted a second look had I passed them on the street. Of course, in the context of the shooting range, my first thought was "sickos." I found myself wondering briefly about why each of them was there.

But my son wanted to be there, too, and he's not a sicko. (He has no interest in hunting, and finds the idea of killing animals highly unsporting.) He loves guns, though. After each round of six shots, he would turn around and look at me with a big smile on his face. (I would wince back.) After we left, he said several times that when he's old enough, he wants a .357, as it felt "so right" in his hands.

Guns are one of those hyper-masculine passions -- along with firecrackers, muscle cars, loud (and not necessarily tuneful) music, and motorcycles -- that I've just never found appealing. Maybe I don't have enough testosterone to be attracted to these things. Maybe I'm too old now anyway. (Ask my son, he'll tell you there's no "maybe" about either of those things.)

I can understand the appeal of guns in an intellectual sort of way. They're finely crafted instruments. And they're a form of power. Who among us does not want more power -- whether it comes from the barrel of a gun or not? (If I could order the entire world to read this blog, even if I had to do so at gunpoint, I would.)

But the entire experience left me thinking what a better place the world would be without guns. People would still commit murder, but it would be much more difficult. (This doesn't mean I'm for gun control, I think the NRA is basically right when they say that such a policy would put all guns into the hands of criminals.)

The experience confirmed for me that I am a pacifist at heart.

Of course, I'm also a coward. I strongly suspect the two personality types have a fair amount of overlap. In any case, both have found a home in me.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Nonstop coverage

My 17 year old son just told me, with a big grin on his face, "Hey Dad, I was just doing some channel surfing, and I found out something I hadn't realized before. Michael Jackson was a saint!"

Johnny made another interesting observation last night: Barack Obama and Clarence Thomas are, psychologically speaking, mirror images. Thomas, who was dubbed "ABC" (for "America's blackest child," because of his dark skin) by other blacks in his youth, now takes political positions which reflect a more white, and conservative point of view: he's against affirmative action, against abortion, etc. And Thomas married a white woman.

Obama, who was brought up by his white mother in Hawaii and Indonesia and by his white grandparents in Kansas, had the opposite problem. When he first got involved in politics in Chicago, he had to prove that he was black enough to suit his constituency. (When he first ran for Congress in 2000, opponent Bobby Rush said, "I lived the civil rights movement. Barack just read about it.") Obama's political positions are now pro-everything that helps transfer money from white people to black people: higher taxes on the wealthy, giving the auto companies to their unions, a Supreme Court nominee who is a champion of affirmative action, nationalized health care, etc. And Obama married a dark-skinned black woman.

Both men had their fathers desert their families when they were only two years old. Both went to Ivy League law schools. And both spent their young manhoods intently focused on racial issues. They just ended up with opposite points of view.

Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, RIP

Quite a coincidence that two such huge cultural icons should die on the same day.

Fawcett, of course, was not nearly the phenomenon Jackson was. She was just a very beautiful woman who happened to hit it big, thanks in part to a hit TV series (which spawned an equally lame couple of movies) and in part to a poster which seemed to be ubiquitous in 1977. She really wasn't much more than a glorified model, try as she did to transcend that status. But at her peak, she radiated good health, vitality, and a sexuality that most men would have given anything to explore.

I expressed my sympathies for Michael Jackson earlier, in February: http://justnotsaid.blogspot.com/2009/02/good-father.html

Jackson, unlike Fawcett, was an incredible talent, and his music, unlike her beauty, will not fade. It seems unfortunate that he died while right on the verge of a comeback tour which might have gotten him out of debt. Perhaps, from a public image point of view, it's even more unfortunate that he didn't die twenty-five years ago as the still handsome young man who had just made Thriller, the best-selling album of all time. He had already produced his best music by that point, he was still at the height of his dancing powers, and more importantly, hadn't yet been tarred by the child molesting scandals or marred by the never ending plastic surgeries.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The toughest guy I ever met

A few weeks ago I met a guy who had been a Navy SEAL. Attaining that status is pretty much the ultimate in machismo, but this guy presented himself like a librarian. An appealing combination. This post is not about him, but he did get me to thinking about toughness in general, though, and I was reminded of a series of essays I had written about people I've known with extreme personality traits and which I never got around to trying to publish elsewhere. Anyway, this is one of them.

I know a guy named Dave who is a stockbroker in San Francisco. He lives with his wife and four children in Mill Valley, and commutes daily to his office downtown. But his life wasn't always so tame.

He grew up in South Dakota, one of ten siblings, the son of a nurse and a semi-employed truck driver. He and five brothers shared a bedroom, which had a cement floor and was lit by a single, naked light bulb. For many of his early years, he had only one pair of pants to wear during the entire year, and by the end of the year, it would be in tatters. When he was in kindergarten he and his identical twin brother got into a fight which lasted for three hours. it started right after their school session let out at noon, and was still going when the afternoon session ended at three.

By the time they were twelve, Dave and his twin spent their summers hoisting bales of hay onto their father's truck. Often for breakfast all they got was a candy bar. At one point at age thirteen he left home for three weeks, sleeping down by a river and living off handouts from friends' families and whatever else he could scrounge.

At age fourteen Dave took up bull riding, and competed in local rodeos. he had a friend whose face was torn off by an angry bull, but he himself managed to escape that fate. He also competed in wrestling; he and his brother developed their skills by constantly wrestling each other. Their matches would occasionally spin out of control; Dave still has the scars from bite marks on his chest from one particularly vicious fight when they were in college.

When Dave was fifteen and sixteen, he would go to bars with his buddies. (This being South Dakota in the late Seventies, IDs were not checked too rigorously.) They didn't exactly go looking for fights, but fights happened. When they did, Dave usually found himself the designated fighter/protector of his group. He weighed a hundred and fifty pounds at the time, and sometimes had to fight men who were ten or fifteen years older, and outweighed him by fifty pounds or more, but he always won.

Such backgrounds are not necessarily fertile backgrounds for productive lives (another brother is currently in prison for murder). But Dave and his brother both won wrestling scholarships to the University of Nebraska. At age 24, Dave won the world freestyle championship at 198 pounds, beating all the Russians, Iranians, Bulgarians, Turks, and Germans who came his way. Three years later, despite having a walking around weight of only 205, he tried out for the 1988 Olympic team at 220 pounds, so that his brother would have a chance to make the team at 198. Both made the team. Dave was favored to win the gold, but made an early tactical mistake in the semifinals that cost him, and he ended up with the bronze.

I once asked Dave how he would do against Mike Tyson (then still at the peak of his powers) in a street fight; Dave, in his soft-spoken way, said that unless Tyson immediately knocked him out, he would take him. (This was the answer I expected -- and agreed with.) On another occasion I asked him about the dirty tactics the Iranians and the Bulgars were known to use. He just shrugged and said that if someone blinded him during a bout, he would just continue to wrestle, since he could tell just from feel what move his opponent was planning next.

After the Ultimate Fighting Championships started to get some publicity in the early Nineties, Dave, several years into his Wall Street career, was bitten by the bug again. He decided to learn striking, with an eye towards possibly competing in the UFC. A year into his tae kwon do lessons, he went to Las Vegas with his buddies one weekend to watch the rodeo championships. While there, he noticed some ads for a full contact tae kwon do tournament, so he signed up to compete in the next day's matches. But that night, instead of making sure he got a good night's sleep, he went out carousing with his friends. The next day, he went to the arena where the tournament was being held. Despite the prospect of imminent punishment in a sport in which he was a relative novice, he was so relaxed that he just fell asleep near the mat, after asking someone to wake him up when it was his turn to fight. He was duly woken up, and fought his match with the full contact champion. When I asked how he did, he shrugged, "I held my own."

Dave is the second toughest guy I've ever met.

But what is toughness, exactly?

Some define toughness as the ability to be tough on others. But this isn't really toughness: it's just being a bully, or even a sociopath. This is the self-serving definition of "toughness" for the boastful "I'm a take no prisoners kind of guy" who, himself, would not do well if taken prisoner. Real toughness is about the ability to withstand hardship.

Is toughness simply the ability to withstand pain? Women often say that the most physically painful experience in life is giving birth; no man is in a position to dispute this. But that pain is in a sense involuntary (and, with modern medicine, less painful than it used to be). Perhaps toughness is more about what we voluntarily endure.

Haile Gebrselassie, the great Ethiopian distance runner, was extremely tough. He won Olympic gold medals in both 1996 and 2000 at 10,000 meters. Even more impressively, he placed fifth in the same event in 2004 despite not having trained for the previous three weeks due to a serious Achilles tendon injury, and despite barely warming up before the race due to the same injury. Abebe Bikila won the first of his two Olympic marathons in 1960 running barefoot through the streets of Rome. Grete Waitz won the New York Marathon nine separate times. During one of those races, she was suffering from diarrhea; but had she used one of the Port-O-Sans along the way, she would have lost valuable time. So, she simply continued to run, the excrement dribbling down her leg. That one race alone put her in the Toughness Hall of Fame.

Any boxer willing to endure punishment for the sake of his sport must be very tough. No one took more blows from more heavy punchers than Muhammad Ali, who in his time faced Sonny Liston, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Shavers, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, and Larry Holmes, the best heavyweights of three decades. When Ali was in his twenties he was fast enough to dance away from their punches; later, in his thirties, he just absorbed them. Ali was the epitome of toughness in this regard (and paid the price later on); few would deny the heroic aspect to his life.

Anyone who makes it through Navy Seal Hell Week certainly qualifies as extremely tough. Among the tests the sleep-deprived Seals must pass is to spend an entire night sitting chest deep in the San Diego surf, wearing nothing more than a pair of pants and a T-shirt. They must also parachute from such high altitude that oxygen masks are required, in the middle of the night, into the ocean. They endure all this in order to get the opportunity to risk their lives in battle.

Does being tough mean having no fear? Some people just don't seem to have any of the phobias that bedevil most of us: public speaking, heights, snakes, spiders, the ocean, the dark, and so on. Or does fearlessness simply bespeak a certain emotional numbness? A better definition of toughness might be the willingness to confront one's fears. And the more debilitating they are, the more courage it takes.

Or is toughness simply stick-to-it-iveness? Is it the ability to keep after a goal year after year in the face of endless disappointments? To persevere in the face of contrary advice and even ridicule? Vincent Van Gogh kept painting even though he never sold a single painting during his lifetime; this seems the definition of will power. Of course, he also cut off his own ear; maybe some element of craziness is inherent in this kind of character.

One definition of grit is the single mother who works two or even three jobs in order to support her children. She does this not for glory, or even gratitude; merely for love. This is an unsung form of toughness, but it takes just as much steadfastness and endurance as Van Gogh showed.

Christy Brown, the subject of the movie "My Left Foot," was wracked with cerebral palsy. Despite this handicap, he taught himself to type with his left foot, the one part of his body he could control, and completed an entire book. This demonstrated a degree of will power most of us couldn't imagine.

One aspect of toughness is the willingness to go without creature comforts. Very few of us are willing to lead the life of a Spartan. How well would be put up without toilet paper, or hot running water, or a comfortable bed, or central heating?

Another element of toughness is simply the lack of self-indulgence. Norman Mailer once famously said that tough guys don't dance. Neither do they indulge in "comfort foods." they don't do leisure shopping and justify it with an "I deserve this" mentality. And "I need a drink" is not the clarion call of the tough guy.

Is toughness the ability to endure humiliations that would cause most of us to crawl back into our shells? By this definition, anybody who's ever had a career as a stand up comedian is tough. When the phrase "tough guy" is mentioned, Billy Crystal and Martin Short aren't the first two names that come to mind, but in their own way, they are tougher than most of us.

If toughness is measured by sticking to one's principles no matter the price, then Nelson Mandela is the ultimate in tenacity. All he had to do to be released from his South African jail was to renounce the African National Congress, but he wouldn't do so, and thus remained in jail for five more years.

Or is toughness a matter of unshakable confidence? Christopher Columbus not only ignored the conventional wisdom regarding the shape of the earth, he bet his life on it. To be sane when the rest of the world is crazy takes backbone. Far too many of us are swayed by popular opinion. Numerous psychological studies have documented that test subjects will change their opinion to suit what everyone else in the room is saying, even if they have to ignore the evidence right in front of them to do so. It takes a certain resolution to stick to one's guns; of course, when one is wrong, it's merely willful obtuseness.

Similarly, it takes a certain amount of toughness to stay calm when hysteria reigns.

The guy I know who comes closest to embodying all these traits is Tom Campbell.

Tom stands only five foot four, but is built very solidly, with powerful forearms and a barrel chest tapering down to a thin waist, and sturdy legs. He has a boyish but weathered face; he looks like a jockey on steroids. At times he evokes Popeye, at others Jimmy Cagney.

Tom spent his boyhood in Alaska, the stepson of an abusive Army colonel. (His father would, among other things, strike any child who dared speak during dinner.)

Although Tom didn't grow tall, he grew strong. He was a state high school champion at cross-country skiing, which he describes as no big deal because of the relatively small population of the state. But he was also the Alaska Golden Gloves champion at 135 pounds, a bigger deal because he had to beat every lightweight from the huge Army and Air Force bases up there. He also set his high school record for pull-ups with thirty-three.

Even more impressive for an abused kid from an Army base in Alaska were his SATs: 730 Verbal and 760 Math.

Upon graduating from high school in 1968, Tom enlisted in the Army. I once asked why. He replied, "I was young. I was foolish. I wanted some action." He volunteered to go through Ranger training, became an Airborne Ranger, then volunteered to go to Viet Nam.

The most dangerous job in Viet Nam was not, as is commonly believed, either Marine Reconnaissance or helicopter gunship pilot. It was tunnel rat. Tom Mangold and John Penycate, two reporters for the BBC, wrote a book, "The Tunnels of Cu Chi," which was published in 1985. In it they describe the labyrinthine network of tunnels where the Viet Cong hid, emerging only at night. The American soldiers, who lived in air conditioned barracks, were initially mystified by the disappearance of the Viet Cong during the day. Eventually they discovered the existence of the tunnels.

The tunnels were pitch black, dank, small corridors about four feet high and three feet wide which led into the bowels of the earth. The VC had booby-trapped these tunnels to make them even more forbidding to any intruder. They had rigged false bottoms in places, so that anyone who entered would fall into a pit and be impaled by sharpened bamboo stakes. Certain parts of the tunnels (sealed off by water barriers) would be filled with poison gas. There were secret vantage points from which the VC would lie in wait, ready to spear an intruder through the neck.

One trap the VC devised involved mounting a box of scorpions on the ceiling of a tunnel. If an intruder brushed the wall with his shoulder at the wrong time, he would release a catch-string which would open the bottom of the box, causing scorpions to rain down on his head. A similar trap was constructed by inserting a viper into a hollow bamboo pole so that only its head emerged. If a soldier brushed the wall of the tunnel the wrong way, the pole would swing down so that the viper's head would swing into the soldier's face. These were referred to as either one-step, two-step, or three-step vipers, depending on how many steps a soldier could take before he died. The VC also placed hornets' nests and bees' nests down there. Apart from the man-made traps, there were poisonous snakes, centipedes, spiders, and bats which simply lived down there.

Obviously, the Army couldn't simply order a soldier to go down into a tunnel; most would have refused. They had to ask for volunteers. The volunteers had to be small, so as to fit into tunnels built for the VC. They would also have to be fearless, or at least be able to control their fear. And they would have to be very alert, with sharp senses of smell and hearing, as well as good night vision. Mangold and Penycate described those who did volunteer as genuine American heroes, uncommonly willing to put their lives on the line. Within the ranks they were universally admired for their courage.

Tom volunteered. He went on numerous missions, crawling on his hands and knees and carrying nothing but a revolver in one hand, a flashlight in the other, and a knife in his teeth. He registered seventeen enemy kills. And he was one of the roughly fifty percent who survived that hazardous duty. Tom was awarded a Bronze Star for his bravery.

One of the first things you notice about Tom is that he's always aware of his surroundings, like an animal in the wild. His big, neonate eyes take in everything around him. And you can almost see his ears perk up at a new sound. Perhaps these instincts were developed as a tunnel rat; perhaps he had them to begin with. Either way, he was uniquely well suited for that dangerous occupation.

Tom grew to despise the ARVN, the South Vietnamese soldiers the Americans were supporting, for their cowardice and corruption. At the same time, he developed a grudging admiration for the tenacity of the VC. But the group he admired most were the Korean Special Forces soldiers who fought alongside the Americans. They were tough in a way he had simply never encountered before; even the VC were scared of them. If the Americans went down into the tunnels, it was usually kill or be killed. When the Koreans went down, the VC would often simply surrender. On several occasions Tom witnessed a Korean soldier come up out of a tunnel with a number of VC behind him, hands on their heads.

During a two week R&R (rest and recreation) break in Australia, Tom and a group of tunnel rat buddies went to a bar where they ran into a group of Australian soldiers. In Tom's words, "Well, we thought we were pretty tough, and they thought they were pretty tough, and what ended up happening was that I got in a fight with their leader. He was a lot bigger than me, but I knew how to box. Anyway, I wasn't that proficient at martial arts at the time, and the fight pretty much ended in a draw. Afterward, he put his arm around me and bought me a beer, and we were all making friends, when all of a sudden the bar door opened and some ROK [Republic of Korea] Special Forces guys walked in. I knew who they were because of the red triangle they wore on their shoulders. The second I saw them I was filled with fear. I knew exactly what was going to happen, because the Aussies were really racist."

Sure enough, the Aussie leader turned around, saw them, and said, "We don't want any of you slanty-eyed bastards in here. The Korean squad leader walked up to him and said, "What? You talk to me?" The Aussie leader, who didn't know any better, said, "That's right, I'm talking to you, gook." The Korean did a reverse spinning back kick and knocked the Aussie off his bar stool; the Aussie did not get up. Within thirty seconds, there wasn't a single Australian left standing up. And there wasn't a single Korean with so much as a bloody nose or split lip.

When Tom's tour of duty in Viet Nam was over, he decided to go to Korea with the Army Counterintelligence Corps to, among other reasons, learn tae kwon do. Tom dedicated himself to the art, practicing up to six hours a day.

In American, martial arts studios exist for the same reason every other business exists, to make money. At the average tae kwon do or karate studio, students are promoted through all through all the various belt colors (enough to make a medium-sized box of Crayolas proud) until they eventually become black belts. (Without all that positive reinforcement they might not continue to come to class and pay their fees.) To get their black belts, they must do katas (essentially elaborate dances) with good form. Almost everybody who attends class long enough, no matter how unathletic, is eventually rewarded with a black belt.

In Korea, tae kwon do is the national sport, and they take it very seriously. First, there is no rainbow of belt colors (an American invention) to be promoted through. You start out as a white belt, then, when you're ready, you get a brown belt, then a black belt. Koreans practice "hard" tae kwon do, which means they punch and kick two by fours wrapped in straw until the various striking surfaces of their hands and feet become tough and callused. The way a student becomes a black belt is to fight two black belts (in real, full contact fights, not the non-contact variety favored here). If he acquits himself well, he passes. If not, he fails. Unlike American teachers, Koreans feel no qualms about failing their students.

Tom stayed in Korea for two years, eventually earning his fourth degree black belt in tae kwon do. After he left Korea, for the next twenty years, Tom never stopped practicing and studying the martial arts. He studied Thai kickboxing, kali escrima (the art of turning a one foot bamboo stick into a weapon), hand trapping, and jeet kune do (Bruce Lee's martial art).

Once, in 1989, Tom offered to teach me some "real" fighting techniques. So I brought him to my gym. He suggested I use the eye gouge; to demonstrate, he had me put on a pair of Plexiglas welder's glasses, and told me to try to stay away from him. He would stiffen his fingers and strike the glass, never missing once, no matter how I tried to evade him. (He never hit me on the bridge of the nose, or the eyebrow, or the cheekbone, but always right on the eye.) He is one of the few people I've ever met who can successfully make a knife out of his hand and hurt you by pressing his fingers straight into your stomach. If most of us try this, we merely hurt our fingers, as when catching a football the wrong way.

Tom also showed me how to kick effectively. He said, "In the movies, they always show guys doing high kicks, but if you do those against a good fighter, they leave you vulnerable. I prefer to go for the kneecaps." He then demonstrated this by showing how he was able, no matter what position he was standing in, within about two tenths of a second, to have the outside edge of his foot resting lightly on top of my kneecap. He added, "All you really have to do is kick a guy lightly in the shins; that hurts like hell. Then, once he's bent over, you can just grab his head and knee him in the face." He seemed to let his lower body just flow into the gym wall, lightly kicking it at shin level; some of the hard plaster fell out. I tried kicking the wall, and nothing happened. In the ensuing months, I tried kicking that same wall many times as hard as I could, and was never able to dislodge any plaster.

There is gym strength, and there is usable strength. Gym strength is acquired by working on the bench press, the abdominal machine, and so on. Gym muscles look good, and these days they often look even better because they are shaved and artificially pumped up with steroids (witness the number of actors who've gone on steroids). But gym muscles don't necessarily allow their users to do anything with them, other than bench press, the ab machine, etc.

Usable strength is something else entirely. In virtually every sport, power is generated from the torso and hips. Whether you're hitting a golf ball, throwing a punch, or pitching a baseball, the power comes from the torque of the trunk, not the biceps or triceps. Dave, the wrestler referred to at the beginning of his article, is a perfect example of this. He acquired his strength from wrestling bales of hay onto his father's truck beginning at age twelve, then from wrestling his twin brother, both of which utilized his entire body -- and not from endless curls in front of a mirror. So his strength is much more effective.

Tom also had a lifetime of exercise that never included weights. He, like Dave, has forearms like an old-fashioned blacksmith. His hands are knotted, ridged, veiny affairs with gristly tendons that stand out in clear relilef when used. He can hurt you just br grabbing your arm and squeezing. (If you want to know which guys to avoid in fights, look at the forearms, not the pecs.) With Tom, it was as if all the power of a much larger man had been compressed into his smaller body, and then somehow the compression itself had then resulted in an even more strength. There was something almost inhuman about it, as if he had gorilla tendons rather than human ones (a 350 pound gorilla is as strong as eight full grown men).

After returning from Korea, Tom spent a year working on an Alskan commercial fishing boat. The job paid well by the standards of unskilled labor, for good reason: it has been rated the most dangerous job in the country. Relatively small boats go out to sea for weeks, not coming back till they are laden with fish, all the while subject to the many freak storms which bedevil the Aleutians year round. But Tom survived, again.

Tom also applied to college that year, and in the fall of 1974 entered Antioch on the GI Bill. Antioch had a reputation as a very left wing school; it was inevitable that there be some adjustment problems.

On one occasion during his freshman year, Tom inadvertently sat at the table where the black students normally sat (there was no one sitting there at the time) with a white friend. Two young black men walked up and told them they couldn't sit there. Tom's friend got up and left immediately. Tom told them that he didn't want to cause trouble, he just wanted to eat his lunch. In Tom's words, "I was twenty-five, I had been to Viet Nam, I didn't want to get pushed around by a couple of eighteen year old punks. The problem was, one of them had already told me to leave, and he couldn't then back down in front of his friend." To Tom's surprise, the fellow who told him to leave suddenly punched him in the mouth; the other one laughed. When Tom put his hand to his mouth, he both literally and figuratively saw red. He sprang up and immediately floored both of them (with kicks and punches, nothing lethal). By this point, eight other blacks had gathered around, but Tom was on fire. He yelled, "Come on, I'll take you all on!" Tom weighed all of 137 pounds, but none of them budged. They had seen how quickly and easily he had taken out their friends; they would no more have taken him on than they would have willingly wrestled a wolverine.

Like many short people, Tom is very sensitive about his height. But unlike most he is almost touchingly open about it: "I hate being short. It's like an open, festering sore....And I really hate it when people call me short." People have done this, some to their regret. During one summer in college, Tom worked for Northwest Airlines as a baggage handler. On his first day of work, his supervisor, a lanky white guy who stood around six-four, pointed at Tom and said, "I want to see some work out of you this summer, little man." As Tom later recounted, "Why did he have to humiliate me like that, in front of all those people?"

I asked Tom how he responded, and he shrugged, "I walked up to him, kicked him in the balls, then once I had him on the ground, I beat him to a bloody pulp." I said, you must have lost your job. Tom replied, "No, because he wasn't the guy who hired me. He didn't talk to me the rest of the summer, though."

Tom's failing is not that he acts like a bully, or picks on the weak; I've never seen him do either. His failing is that if someone pushes him, he can't just walk away. He always pushes back (a little harder), and mutual escalation leads to only one outcome. It's never a fair fight, at least in the sense that the combatants are well-matched. But at least the loser's beating is never entirely undeserved. (To those of us who've been pushed around by bullies -- and who've just taken it -- it's gratifying to hear of someone who doesn't.)

During school breaks, Tom sometimes returned to Alaska. While there, he would often go on backpacking trips by himself. Most of us are familiar with the basic safety rules: never travel alone, always tell someone where you are going, and give dangerous animals the right of way. Tom would just set off on his own for a two week trip to the far reaches of the Brooks Range, never seeing another human being the entire time. I once asked, "What if you had broken your leg? Or just sprained an ankle? You were a one week hike from the nearest road, and no one knew where you were. You would have been dead." He shrugged, "I guess."

Tom carried nothing more than a rifle, a fishing rod, and a sleeping bag. He ate wild berries and salmon virtually every day. Whenever he ran across a black bear, he would merely hold his rifle above his head with two hands and yell at it; this would invariably scare them off. he gave a wider berth to grizzlies, though. He never had to shoot a bear, though, to his relief, since he admires them.

After graduating from college, Tom went to medical school at Rutgers. While there he took up running, and at the age of 32, ran a marathon in two hours and thirty-eight minutes. After this he gave up marathons, preferring instead ot run through woods whenever he could, scrambling up hills and through bushes.

Although he graduated from medical school with honors, Tom never worked as a doctor. Instead he did research for various health organizations and worked as an inspector for the FDA.

Tom moved to New York City in 1988, at age forty. He had lost none of his feistiness at this point. During this period, Tom dated a lot of black women, and would often walk with them through their neighborhoods. Occasionally a certain type of black man, the type who traded on whites' fear of blacks, would loudly question why a black woman would want to date a white man. This usually proved a bad mistake. Within the first six months of moving to the city, Tom got into six street fights.

I told Tom that sooner or later he would run into someone with a gun, and then it would be his turn to be sorry. He replied, "Oh no, I'm very careful. I always make sure that I'm within six feet of a guy if I confront him. You think he could pull his gun out, aim it, and shoot me before I took his eyes out?"

On one occasion five teenagers were shooting their BB guns inside a subway car Tom happened to be in. An older lady asked them to stop, telling them that they could hit somebody in the eye. They ignored her. Tom, unarmed except for a foot long bamboo stick, walked up to their leader, pulled it out, and growled, "If you don't stop right now I'm going to take this stick and shove it up your ass." They stopped.

On another occasion he witnessed a woman being harassed by a man in the subway. He told the man to back off. The man attacked Tom. Tom hit him once, hard enough to make him fall, then held him down on the floor till the next stop, where the police came to take the man off. Tom ended up dating the woman briefly.

I once asked Tom what he thought of Roberto Duran, the Panamanian lightweight boxing champion who was an icon of ferocity. (I thought if there was one person he'd be a fan of, it would be Duran.) Tom replied, "I met Duran once. In the early Eighties, whenever I was in New York, i used to work out at Gleason's Gym, and once Duran was there, training for a fight." I asked what he had said to Duran, thinking that perhaps he had expressed admiration for the legendary fighter. Tom replied, "I told him, 'Roberto, you're fat! Look at you! You need to get in shape'!" I asked what Duran had said in reply. Tom said, "Nothing much. He just looked at me."

As part of his sojourn working for the FDA, Tom had to go through a training course required of all field operatives. The course was given at FBI headquarters in Quantico. He placed first in his class in marksmanship. He also, at age forty-two, placed first in all of the physical fitness tests, beating out all his twenty-something classmates.

In 1990, Tom decided to have an operation to repair the cartilage in his nose, which had been broken a few times. To do this the surgeons had to take some of the cartilage from behind his ear. Normally an operation would require a general anesthetic to put the patient under for the duration. Tom opted to go without even a local painkiller so that he could talk to the doctors about what they were doing while they performed the surgery.

Tom is not without fear. He is afraid of heights. This was a phobia he had to face many times as an Army Airborne Ranger. "No matter how many parachute jumps I took, I never got over my fear. I was always scared." But he did them nonetheless.

Recently he has been taken with the new research which has indicated that reduced caloric intake can result in a longer life. To this end, he eats only one meal every two days.


If you look at the evolution of civilization, from the time of the hunter gatherers on up through the development of agriculture, through the industrial revolution, through the technological revolution, through all the advances in medicine, up to the internet age, each development has been geared towards making life easier. With each invention, our need for toughness diminishes. A primitive hunter gatherer, if he met a farmer, would probably be surprised at his danger-free lifestyle. A farmer leading a hardscrabble existence would be amazed at the relative ease of life in the city. A rider for the Pony Express would be astonished at the ease of automobile travel on paved roads. Each of these people would probably also scoff at the softness of his descendants.

These days if we're thirsty, we simply turn on the tap; if we're hungry, we go to the refrigerator; if we're cold, we turn up the thermostat; and if we ache, we take a painkiller. It's not our fault that we're soft; we simply don't have any reason to be any other way.

All of us adapt to our environments by becoming whoever we need to be. Tom became what, in his mind, he needed to be in order to survive and thrive. Tom was regularly abused by his stepfather, and he only grew to five feet four inches, which would have exacerbated his general feeling of physical helplessness had he not compensated by turning himself into a walking weapon. Someone with a different physical constitution, and perhaps, fewer male hormones, might have reacted differently to the same set of circumstances. Tom's hormonal makeup predisposed him towards aggression and violence.

Tom, like the few other exceptionally tough people I've known, does not set great store by toughness as a character trait. (People who aspire to toughness almost always do so because they really aren't.) Tom sees himself as simply having a very no nonsense attitude about protecting what's his, and he's found that being confrontational often suits those purposes. He's not proud of being tough; he simply doesn't understand people who aren't. In particular, he doesn't understand guys who start fights but don't know how to fight.

What Tom does set great store by is intellectual accomplishment. He loves the idea of intelligence, cultural refinement, and even academic degrees with a passion that could only come from one who was never exposed to those things as a child. In fact, Tom's intellectual airs, if exhibited by someone without his tough guy credentials, could only be called effetely pretentious. He never uses a small word where a big one will do. He will allude to his various degrees (which now include one in clinical investigation from Harvard Medical School) or to his arcane scientific knowledge a little too readily. And he'll go on about wines long enough to cure an alcoholic.

Yet he never boasts about what makes him truly unique, his toughness. The academic degrees are a patina which are polished and shown off whenever possible. The toughness is such a basic part of him that it would never occur to him to boast about it, no more than most of us would boast about our breathing. Those of us who don't have it can only marvel.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

It's the hypocrisy, Part II

John Ensign, junior senator from Nevada, has been in the news recently for having had an affair with Cynthia Hampton, a campaign staffer who is the wife of a top aide.

Personally, I don't think that politician's private lives should affect their political careers. My feeling has always been that "Don't ask don't tell" should be "Ask or tell if you want but it makes no difference either way" -- for both gays and straights, for both marrieds and singles, and for both the military and the legislature.

Marriage is a difficult proposition. Most of us get married because we've always had the vague sense that's what we're supposed to do at a certain age, and that it's the right thing to do if we want children. Sixty percent of married people stray at some point during their married lives. It's just human nature to get bored and seek excitement elsewhere. Should sixty percent of the populace be disqualified from public office because they stray? (The type of ambitious people who are personable enough to get elected in the first place probably stray at an even higher rate.)

Of course, only a small percentage get caught. But should political success be based on one's skill at evading detection?

And who know what goes on in someone else's marriage? Whether or not a married person strays is really none of our business any more than how often a married couple has sex, or what kinks they enjoy. Maybe one of the spouses is unable, or unwilling, to satisfy the other. Should the willing spouse then be condemned to a life of celibacy?

The point is, it's not our business.

Unless someone is incredibly, publicly, hypocritical about it.

What galls most people about Ensign's affair is not that he had it, but that he was so self-righteously vindictive about others' affairs.

Despite what liberals like to say, Clinton's impeachment was about perjury, not about his having had an affair. (Under a system of "ask if you want, tell if you want, but it makes no difference" Clinton would never have had to perjure himself in the first place -- although knowing him, he might have anyway.) But Ensign evidently castigated Clinton for merely having had the affair, and said he should resign because of it.

Larry Craig's transgression was not just about extramarital sex, it was about soliciting sex in a men's room, which is evidently against the law. Ensign suggested that he, too, should resign, merely for having strayed.

In 2004, Ensign, while arguing against gay marriage, stated, "Marriage is the cornerstone on which our society was founded....Marriage, and the sanctity of that institution, predates the American Constitution and the founding of our nation."

All of which makes him less than an ardent advocate for extramarital nookie.

On top of which, Ensign's own transgression wasn't exactly a run of the mill affair. He had an affair with a campaign staffer, who was the wife of a trusted (and trusting) subordinate, which is, no matter how you cut it, ugly. And he used his office to get raises for each of them, an obvious conflict of interest. (I'm surprised that angle hasn't been played up more.)

All of which in turn makes him a despicable hypocrite who is unfit for public office.

The Nevada electorate will undoubtedly agree come 2012.

It's always gratifying to see a hypocrite exposed. (How very preferable that in this case, what happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Chicken hawks

If only there were a way to arrange it so that the people who want a war could be the ones to have to actually serve in the infantry for it, that would seem like a much more equitable arrangement.

I know, such a situation would be unworkable. Armies are made up of young men who volunteer for service and who know what they're getting into. And you have to have a chain of command, not a situation where soldiers can effectively pick and choose which wars they will fight in.

Still, it seems unjust to have old men order young men into battle to possibly die, when the old men themselves don't have to put their lives at stake. It's worse when they never did.

John McCain is certainly no hypocrite that way. I would never vote for him because he's a hawk. But since his own youth was spent fighting (and being imprisoned) for his country, at least he's not asking anybody to do anything he himself didn't do.

And it seems fitting that a Barack Obama, who never served in the military, would present himself as a man of peace (although that promise, like so much else he said during his campaign, seems to have been made purely for political gain, and is falling by the wayside in Afghanistan).

Dick Cheney, on the other hand, received five separate draft deferments from military service during the 1960's ("I had other priorities in the 60's than military service"). Yet he has been -- and is still -- very eager to send young men off to war, to fight and possibly die for their country. This is unseemly, to say the least.

So unseemly as to be infuriating.

At the very least, it seems that people who really want war should have their own children in the Armed Forces. Of course, it rarely seems to work that way. Again, I know it's unworkable, but it would certainly seem fairer.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iran cracks down on press

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has directed his Revolutionary Guard to shut down "deviant news sites" (read: reformist websites) which encouraged civil disobedience.

Reporters Without Borders, an international group, said yesterday that at least ten Iranian journalists have been detained since Sunday's election.

The government also forbade foreign reporters from leaving their offices in order to witness the demonstrations taking place on the streets of Tehran.

If you're ever trying to figure out who the bad guys -- of either the left or the right -- are, just look for the guys who clamp down on the free flow of information.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The invisible people

The story line of race relations in America is largely colored black and white, and has little to do with the other major shade, brown. Everyone has an opinion on illegal immigration, but when it comes to interpersonal relations, Hispanics do not figure nearly as prominently in the national psyche, even though they are now roughly equal in number with blacks.

Hollywood makes many movies starring black actors like Will Smith or Denzel Washington or Don Cheadle or Halle Berry or Vanessa Williams or Thandie Newton or Angela Bassett. But I can think of only one Mexican-American movie star, Salma Hayek. And she is half-Lebanese, half-Spanish, not Amerindian or mestizo like the vast majority of Mexicans. (Of course, even in Mexico, all of the television stars are of obviously European descent.)

Youngsters in this country are taught to look up to black sports stars, to "be like Mike" (Jordan). Mexican-American sports heroes are almost nonexistent. This may not be a fair comparison, as boxing in the lighter weight categories and marathon running are not popular spectator sports the way basketball and football are. But the point is, other than Oscar de la Hoya, who never quite fully achieved crossover status, this is another area where Hispanics are practically invisible.

I'm as guilty of this oversight as anyone. I live in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Mexicans -- or Guatemalans, or Salvadorans, or Hondurans -- are ubiquitous here. They do much of the yard work, construction work, housework, and so on. When I drive through town, I see them all over. But somehow, I just don't take much notice of them. Many of the workers around the Y where I exercise are Amerindian/Hispanic. I nod to the familiar faces, but almost never engage them in conversation. On the few occasions when I have, they are polite and friendly and likable. But I don't even know the names of the guys who mow my lawn (other than their boss, who is Ecuadorean).

From what I've seen, most Fairfield County residents share my attitude. They just don't pay much attention to the Mexicans. The Hispanics are there as workers, always in the background and never in the foreground.

Contrast this to blacks. The few blacks in my hometown somehow seem more visible, and they get more attention. There is a certain type of white person who uses black people to prove what a good person he is; he will go out of his way to befriend blacks and compliment them and spout liberal cliches in an effort to show that he is not racist. (I've always suspected that these are the people who, at heart, are most uncomfortable around blacks.) These must also be the people whose children turn out to be wiggers. Yet these liberal whites -- wonderful open-minded people that they are -- never bother to make the same effort for Mexicans. (And you never hear of wicanos at the high schools.)

Part of the Mexicans' invisibility stems from the fact that they tend to do their work quietly, without fanfare. This may have something to do with the fact that some of them are not here legally, and do not want to attract the attention of the INS. I don't believe that illegal aliens should be here. But on the rare occasions I think about the ones in my hometown, I do feel a very faint twinge of guilt that I barely even notice them. When I see them, their presence registers, and I certainly don't make any negative judgment about them as individuals. But somehow I never seem to take a second look.

I also wonder what the Mexicans think of us. They must think us soft, and spoiled. And they must resent us. I don't blame them. If I did manual labor for a living, I too would regard those "above" such work as both spoiled and pathetic.

You rarely hear of violence between Hispanics and whites. Occasionally you'll hear of a Mexican rapist and killer. And occasionally you'll hear of a gang of whites who has beaten up a Mexican worker. But both are rarities. Interestingly, when blacks and Mexicans go to the same high school, or live in the same neighborhood, there is often violence. Neither group has been taught that it must kowtow to the other, and neither is worried about being accused of racism, so mass fights often ensue. (Whites, by contrast, generally just bend over.)

In the meantime, the Mexicans in my community remain, by and large, invisible. I wonder how long this will last.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Something is rotten in the state of Iran

If only someone in Ahmadinejad's entourage had had a better grasp of statistics, they might have been able to fake the election results more convincingly.

But when when he wins every city and every province, and garners 70% of the overall vote, it strains credulity. Especially when he won in Mousavi's hometown of Tabriz. Especially when Mousavi held the lead in pre-election polls.

Someone in Ahmadinejad's office should have pointed out, "We only need a plurality to win, so let's just take 50 or so percent of the vote, and give a province or two to Mousavi. That way people will think the results are legitimate."

But whoever had the final say-so decided that there would be no red-states-and-blue-states outcome. Thus the resulting hard-to-swallow monochromatic electoral map.

The way statistics work, results from individual areas all show jagged, uneven results. There were bound to be some areas which went for Mousavi. You only get smooth bell curves and other parabolic distributions when you have extremely large sample sizes. But that's not the way Ahmadinejad rigged it. He seems to have given himself an overly consistent outcome which has all the credibility of his earlier pronouncement that there are no homosexuals in Iran.

So now we have widespread protests in Tehran and elsewhere. Good for the Iranis.

Ahmadinejad's 70% is not quite as much of a joke as the 100% that Saddam Hussein once claimed. But it's close.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

It's the hypocrisy

I'm happy to live in a society where speech is free enough that a comedian like David Letterman can openly mock Sarah Palin as a "slutty flight attendant." He also compared Palin to an "Olive Garden hostess" and "the woman who owns a chain of cupcake stores." I thought the riff was funny, because she does sort of resemble those stereotypes. But what would happen if a comedian mocked Michelle Obama as resembling "the angry woman behind the counter at the DMV," or the "finalist in the Olympic 100 meter dash who makes you wonder if she's juicing" or "one of the women you used to see in hot pants on 8th Avenue who might or might not have been a transvestite?" I would find that riff funny, too, because she does sort of resemble those stereotypes. But we all know what would happen. Any comedian who dared mock her would be given the Don Imus treatment -- he would lose his job and be forced to do public penance.

I'm not as happy to live in a society where free speech runs in only one direction.

Likewise, Sonia Sotomayor has every right to express her opinion about wise Latina women with the richness of their experience coming to "better conclusions" than white men. I actually found it thought-provoking: it actually made me wonder about the experiences that a Latina might have had that a white man would not have. What irked me about it was the knowledge that if a white man had said the equivalent, he would not only have automatically been disqualified from consideration for public office, he would have lost whatever office he already had.

Although most of the talk has centered on Sotomayor's "racism," I suspect that it's this double standard that bothers people the most.

I'm happy to live in a society relaxed enough to make and distribute movies which mock Christianity (Dogma, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Da Vinci Code, Bruce Almighty, etc.) can be shown freely. I'm not happy that other religions can't be mocked as freely.

This is not a new state of affairs. Twenty years ago a controversy erupted over Andre Serrano's "Piss Christ," a statuette of Christ on the crucifix immersed in a container of the artist's own urine. The controversy centered on whether this "art" was too offensive to Christians to be put on exhibit. Arnold Lehman of the Brooklyn Museum felt that it wasn't, and displayed it. It's actually a sign of a healthy society when a sacrilegious work can be freely exhibited (leaving aside the issue of whether it constituted "art.")

But it's not so healthy that a "Shit Menorah" or a "Puke Muhammad" would never, ever see the light of day.

Think of the most despicable people you know from your own life. They are probably the people who smugly and self-righteously tell you to behave in one way while they behave in another. When you have an entire society which has two sets of standards, one for one group and one for another, this is simply the same hypocrisy writ large. But the media simply continue to enforce the double standard, to the ever growing resentment of those who recognize it.

Freedom of speech is wonderful. As long as it's for everyone, about everything.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Compel candidates for public office to reveal their SAT scores

Two days ago the NY Times reported that Sonia Sotomayor described herself as an "affirmative action baby" who got into Princeton and Yale Law despite lower standardized test scores than many of her classmates. She attributed her lower test scores to "cultural biases" that are "built into testing." (Strangely, those cultural biases don't seem to affect first generation Asians.)

I'm dying to know what Sotomayor's scores were.

If Sotomayor's Bronx background hampered her performance on the SATs, which is certainly understandable, one would think that after four years at Princeton -- where, after all, she graduated summa cum laude -- she would have caught up enough to have aced her LSATs. But her statement implies that she didn't do well there, either.

Sotomayor has certainly made her grades public. Why not her board scores? They are probably a better indicator of her intelligence than her grades (which, after all, can always be grubbed for). S-A-T does stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test. It isn't entirely an intelligence test, since you do need to know stuff like the formula for the area of a circle, and your vocabulary is tested as well (I've been helping my son study for the test recently). But there are also tests of comprehension, and logic, and problem solving of the sort that more closely resemble an IQ test than does, say, kissing a professor's behind.

(Unfortunately for Sonia, she hasn't been able to kiss the Supreme Court Justices' rear ends, which may have something to do with why they have reversed 80% of the decisions she's made that they've reviewed.)

Why shouldn't we know how intelligent candidates for (either elective or appointive) public office are? During the course of a campaign we find out about their job history, their tax history, their marital history (and often, extramarital history), if they've hired any undocumented workers, and their past statements and writings. Much of that is a reflection of their intelligence. Why not find out more directly about their intelligence, though their test scores?

Obviously, people only hide things when they have things they want to hide. Sotomayor's refusal to reveal her SAT scores, and perhaps more to the point, her LSAT scores, indicate she is trying to hide a less than stellar intelligence. What other conclusion can we draw?

(And why has Obama sealed his academic records, for that matter?)

In 2004, most people were shocked to find that George W. Bush's combined SATs were 1206, higher than John Kerry's 1190. Even more surprising was that Bill Bradley, the Rhodes Scholar and Senator who ran in the Democratic primaries in 2000, got only a 485 for his verbal SAT score. These facts are revealing.

The public has a right to some sense of the brainpower that will go into the decisions that affect their lives. The SAT is the closest thing to an intelligence test that everybody has taken under the same conditions. If a candidate feels that he would be embarrassed by his scores, well, embarrassment is part of the contract you sign when you decide to become a public figure.

An aspiring politician may have other qualities he feels qualify him for public office; let him publicize those. There are certainly other qualifications for leadership that are more important, such as character and experience. (No one has ever suggested that these should be hidden.) And no electorate is ever going to opt for the average dork from MENSA anyway. But raw intelligence is important as well. Otherwise you end up with.....the government we have.

Think about it. Wouldn't, say, Warren Buffett have made a better President than any of our recent ones? Or Charles Darwin? Or Albert Einstein? (It's a stretch to imagine the latter two as politicians, but I suspect that they would have been quite adept at solving -- or at least accurately analyzing -- society's problems had they put their minds to it. The problem is, people like them often have neither the appetite nor the stomach to run.)

Which world leaders have had raw IQ points just dripping from their every pore? Abraham Lincoln. Winston Churchill. Mikhail Gorbachev. Wouldn't they inspire more confidence than some of our recent ones?

It would be nice to have all candidates for public office -- either appointive or elective -- take a pure IQ test under controlled conditions and see how they would do. A good IQ test contains no questions which can be studied for beforehand. It's all about reasoning, memory (of what you just read), patterns, spatial sense, etc. The problem with that is, the motivation to cheat would become very large, poorly paid test administrators would be susceptible to bribes, and the conditions under which the test would be taken couldn't be controlled as well as the SATs are. (No seventeen year old will use his wealth to obtain a copy of the test beforehand in anticipation of an eventual run for public office.)

So, we're stuck with the SAT, our impure IQ test.

People have been elected for all sorts of worse reasons -- would Dan Quayle ever have been elected Senator from Indiana if he hadn't been nice-looking? Would Arnold Schwarzenegger have been elected Governor if he hadn't been a movie star? Would a junior Senator from Illinois have been elected President if a wide swath of white people hadn't craved a sanitized, eloquent black candidate to vote for to prove to themselves that they weren't racist? Would George W. Bush ever have even been elected dogcatcher if he hadn't been the son and namesake of the President?

Shouldn't intelligence rank ahead of these other criteria?

Let's make it, if not mandatory to reveal one's SATs, at least clear that not revealing them is tantamount to an admission of low wattage.

Of course, my personal preference would be that everybody have their IQ tested at age twelve, then get that number permanently tattooed on their foreheads. Some might consider this a bit, well, inhuman. But think how much time you could save that way -- both in your personal life and when it comes to winnowing the field for potential Supreme Court nominees.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tiger Woods no longer world's best golfer





















The previous post mentioned North Korea's lack of a free press. What often happens with such an absence is that the state press then prints whatever "facts" it chooses.

In the case of the North Korean state media, they've reported some amazing things about Kim Jong-il, the Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army and the General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea. Aside from being the composer of six operas, the state media reports, Jong-il is also an enthusiastic golfer who "routinely" shoots three or four holes-in-one per round.

A whopper like that makes you realize you can't believe anything that comes out of a communist propaganda machine. Not their GDP, not their trade balance, not their literacy rate, not their infant mortality rate. And not their leader's golf scores.

Jong-il's reported excellence at golf is a little reminiscent of Chairman Mao's famous swim in the Yangtze River on July 16, 1966. The Chinese Communist Party propagandists reported that the 72-year-old Chairman swam 15 kilometers in the river in 65 minutes. This averages out to 26.0 seconds per hundred meters. When you consider that the world record for the 100 meter freestyle was 52.9 seconds at the time, Mao's swim becomes all the more impressive, especially since Mao kept up his remarkable pace for 150 times the distance, swimming mostly breaststroke.

When I first heard of this I thought, well, it's possible that the Yangtze River was flowing at around eight miles per hour, so all he really needed to do was float for an hour. But then I found out that Class 4 rapids, which are not supposed to be rafted without a professional guide, mean water speeds of over 6 miles per hour. It's doubtful that the party functionaries would have wanted their Supreme Leader immersed in such rapids for over an hour.

It's bad enough that our own President gets the fawning coverage he does, and that the former second stringer at Punahou shoots hoops with professional basketball players who deferentially step aside to let him score.

But this is more as if our media reported that Obama took on the Miami Heat by himself, five against one, with each of the pros playing his absolute hardest, yet still defeated them, 218-74.

What does North Korea want?

Like a spoiled child who wants more attention, North Korea has been acting up recently in ways that demand the world respond. Nuclear tests followed quickly by missile tests followed by more missile tests, and now those two U.S. journalists sentenced to twelve years of hard labor for having gotten lost near the North Korean/Chinese border. It can't be coincidence.

How good -- and beneficent -- a government is can be measured pretty directly by how much freedom of the press it allows, and North Korea ranks pretty much near the bottom there. One can be clapped into a hellish North Korean prison for saying anything the least bit critical of Kim Jong-il. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is anything but.

(This measure was perhaps the most obvious sign of how totalitarian the old Soviet bloc countries were. And when a formerly vibrant press in an ostensibly free country like Venezuela is muzzled by the likes of a Hugo Chavez, that tells you pretty much all you need to know about him. Two other obvious measures of a democracy are whether there are legitimate elections and whether people are allowed to leave the country, and North Korea scores at the bottom there as well.)

The question is, what does Kim Jong-il want? In the past North Korea has effectively gotten bribes from the West to tone down its aggressiveness posturing, but this time around the North Koreans have raised the ante. Do they just want bigger bribes? Or do they actually intend to use those bombs?

I think the capture of the two U.S. journalists is actually a good sign. The only reason they would want those two is for use as bargaining chips -- which means they want to bargain.

But whether the West is in the mood to respond to North Korea with a carrot or a stick this time around remains to be seen. Obama far prefers the carrot (unless you're an American taxpayer), but eventually, all naughty children get punished.

Stay tuned.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Big Surprise Department

In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" yesterday morning, Hillary Clinton, speaking with her usual heartfelt forthrightness, praised her boss.

Hillary, you may remember, aired an ad last year during the primary campaign in which she said it was a dangerous world out there and that voters should think hard about whom they wanted to handle that difficult 3AM phone call. Her implication was that Barack Obama was not strong, thoughtful, and decisive enough to handle a crisis.

Yesterday Hillary said, "The President has been strong, thoughtful, decisive. I think he's doing a terrific job. And it's an honor to serve with him."

It's a tough economy out there and we all understand you want to keep your job, Hillary.

One of Obama's first moves as President was to appoint a series of high-powered types such as former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as special envoys to such hotspots as Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan. Speculation at the time was rife that these men represented a diminution of Hillary's power as Secretary of State.

Hillary's take on this? She told Stephanopoulos, "When I agreed to do this job, I made it very clear to the President that...I wanted special envoys."

Yep, that sounds just like the power-hungry woman we've all come to know and love.

Hillary said that she originally had no intention of joining the administration and had thought that speculation that he was considering her was "absurd." She said, "I was looking forward to going back to the Senate, and, frankly, going back to my life and representing New York, which I love."

If she loved representing New York so much, why did she try so hard to leave that job? The only absurd thing here is the thought that she was "looking forward" to going back to New York after her defeat. I suspect that her feelings, far from joyful anticipation, were much more likely bitter rage at the young upstart who had the temerity to usurp her rightful position atop the world.

When Obama first appointed Hillary as Secretary of State, there was much talk at the time that he had only done so as a way of blunting the broadsides he could otherwise expect from the Clinton camp.

Looks like his tactic succeeded.

Why does anyone ever interview Hillary Clinton? Do they actually expect any honesty from her? Or is it just for yuks?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Note to friends

If any of you ever find my naked corpse hanging from a noose with another loop tied around my genitals, please, please, cut me down, dress me, and lay me on the floor as if I'd just had a heart attack or something before you call the police.

It's probably a merciful thing that David Carradine has died, because if he hadn't, he'd surely be dying of embarrassment right now.

Addendum, 6/11/09: The NY Post reported this morning that Carradine was wearing fishnet stockings and a wig when he was found. (Friends: please remove those too.)

Instinct rules

Several recent studies suggest that our political beliefs reflect much less free will than most of us had probably assumed.

A study by Cornell psychology professor David Pizarro cross referenced results from 181 adults on the Disgust Sensitivity Scale (which measures exactly what it says, our reactions to various visual scenarios) and a political ideology scale. It turns out that people who are more squeamish, i.e., who react with disgust to the sight of various insects or blood or entrails are more likely to be conservative. The difference was most pronounced when it came to attitudes towards gays and lesbians.

Another study, by a group of NYU psychologists, showed that conservatives tend to have more well organized offices, whereas liberals tend to have more colorful, comfortable offices.

All of which would seem to indicate that political beliefs are more a matter of instinct, temperament, emotion, and perhaps tribal loyalty, and less a matter of well reasoned thought.

The only purpose of our intellect seems to be to justify the conclusions we have been lead to by our instincts and emotions, which were pretty much preordained by our genes. We are far less rational than we think.

One good example might be our reaction to the NYU study on office decor. Liberals will think, see, we have more style, more imagination, and more sense when it comes to selecting comfortable furniture. Conservatives will react by thinking, aha, see, we're better organized, which is a reflection of our more ordered thought process, and we have less concern for making a flashy impression.

Both groups' thoughts will immediately move towards justification. Which is all it seems our brains are good for.

Is that how you reacted (whichever side you're on)?

I'm afraid it's how I reacted.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ironclad rule II

One thing I've noticed over the years is that the less self-control people have, the more control they seem to want over others. The extreme examples of this correlation are sociopaths, who lust for power over others, yet who have absolutely no control over their own appetites and desires and emotions. Narcissistic personalities, who are sort of mini-sociopaths without the viciousness, are usually bossy, yet always seem able to justify their own self-indulgence. Self-disciplined people seem to feel less desire to be in control of others.

Think of the people you know. You should find that this rule applies.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Link to swimming article III

Another guest editorial on the Swimming world website:

http://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/lane9/news/21313.asp?q=Open%20Up%20The%20Masters
%20World%20Record%20Book

(For masters swimming fanatics only)

Good timing


Yesterday a Muslim deli owner, Mohammad Sohail (pictured above on the surveillance tape), stopped a robber who came into his store brandishing a baseball bat by getting the drop on him with his rifle. When the would-be robber broke down in tears and said he was only doing it to support his family, Sohail, didn't turn him in to the police. Instead he gave him forty dollars and a loaf of bread after making him promise never to rob again. (Sohail also pretended to swear him into the Muslim faith after the man said he wanted to become a Muslim too.)

"I felt bad for him," said Sohail. "I'm a very little man. I just did a good job. I have a good feeling in my heart. I feel very good."

He should feel good about himself. He acted in what, in this country, is often called a Christian way. The story got a fair amount of play on the airwaves.

It could not have come at a more propitious time for Barack Obama's major speech in Cairo today. Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims," and said that "this cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

Let's hope it does.

Sohail certainly did his part to show a side of Islam that doesn't normally get publicized.

It's a good thing the Taliban didn't choose yesterday to punish another young Afghan couple who decided to elope by machine gunning them to death (as they did a couple months ago). That, well, might not have been such great timing.

Sonia, again


Leading Republican commentator Newt Gingrich has retreated from his original assertion that Sonia Sotomayor is racist. He is now saying that he shouldn't have called her that, since it's just her words that were racist, not her. (By that definition, David Duke is not racist, either.) Maybe Gingrich is trying to appear more statesmanlike. Or maybe he realizes that her nomination is basically a fait accompli in a Democratically-controlled Congress, and he's just saving his ammunition for more winnable battles.

Of course, if a white person had said the equivalent of what Sotomayor had said, the mainstream media would be shrieking the R-word from the rooftops.

If Sotomayor is not racist, who is? There is nothing in her history to indicate that she is anything but a one-sided racial advocate. When she was in college, as head of Accion Puertorriquena, she filed a complaint with HEW demanding more Hispanic teachers at Princeton. At Yale Law, she co-chaired a group which demanded the same for that school.

Sotomayor has since joined the National Council of La Raza and sits on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund. Both groups advocate affirmative action for Hispanics (and like all supporters of affirmative action, want those pesky little test scores thrown out). But Hispanics don't even have the same history of discrimination that blacks have: they were never slaves, and they were never the targets of Jim Crow or the victims of lynchings in the South.

What makes all of this even more ironic is that Sotomayor herself doesn't appear to have that much non-white blood. She looks more or less like a European Spaniard to me, although she could have some Indian blood. It's a little hard to tell because her features are swathed in fat. When people's faces become fat, it tends to almost disguise their ethnicity. Fat is not racist: it gives all ethnicities the same pig eyes and jowls. (Father Time exerts a similar melting pot effect: as people become older, and their hair turns white and their features sag, their ethnic look tends to fade, and it becomes harder to tell Swedes from, say, Italians.)

The most disturbing thing about the debate on Sotomayor -- and its subtext, affirmative action -- is its lack. People are simply afraid to speak honestly about the subject.

Imagine if we lived in a society where getting ahead in one's career was mostly a matter of physical strength, but that the greatest thought crime you could commit was "sexism." Anybody who dared mention that men were, on average, larger and more muscular than women, would be branded a horrible sexist, lose his job, and be drummed out of public life. It would be considered acceptable in polite society to make jokes denigrating men, but not women. Men's long history of subjugating women and using them for selfish reasons would be highlighted in every school curriculum. There would be large-scale programs in effect to guarantee that women got their "fair" share of jobs. Hollywood would constantly make movies showing athletic women using kicks and punches to dismantle large, threatening-looking men. (Actually, come to think of it, that part is true.) Whenever a woman would beat men at an athletic competition, she would receive lots of news coverage. Yet any statistics showing that the opposite was generally true would be squelched. Now everybody with any common sense would have noticed that reality wasn't quite as advertised; but they would also know that to breathe word of this was career suicide.

This is not so different than the society we have now, except that getting ahead is generally a matter of brainpower, and it's not sexism that's the primary thought crime, but "racism."

But what used to be called racism -- discriminating against an individual because of his race -- is no longer considered racist, as long as it's done against whites. What is considered "racist" now is to commit the thought crime of noticing average differences in intelligence and in crime rates between the races.

And Sonia Sotomayor wants to be one of the chief enforcers of this orthodoxy.

Tip O'Neill once famously said that all politics is local. (I'm not even sure what he meant by this.) He would have been more on point had he said that all politics is racial. (Whatever one thinks of crime and punishment, of welfare, of illegal immigration, of affirmative action, and of tax rates is likely driven by one's basic views -- and loyalties -- on race.)

Just ask Sonia.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

New trend in crime prevention

Today's most entertaining news, from the AP:


"Man accused of posting sex assault live on Web

PHOENIX – Authorities in Arizona say a man has been accused of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman and broadcasting it live on the Internet.

A statement filed in court in Phoenix says 20-year-old Jonathan Richard Hock was arrested Monday on charges of sexual assault, kidnapping and taking a surreptitious photo.

The court document said Hock set up a computer Web camera and sexually assaulted the 20-year-old woman in her bedroom in February while she was unconscious from drinking alcohol.

Police said in the court document that the video was watched repeatedly until the Web site where it was posted removed it. It said the Web site service gave a copy of the video to police.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office didn't respond to a request to interview Hock."


Usually people tape themselves doing things they're proud of. Was Mr. Hock proud of the fact that he was so hard up the only way he could get any action was with a sleeping woman?

Let's hope this signals the dawn of a new age, where criminals tape themselves in the act and then upload their tapes onto the internet. It would certainly make police work much easier.