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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Feral girl

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian police have taken into care a 5-year-old girl who has been shut up in a flat in the company of cats and dogs for her entire life, police said on Wednesday.

The girl, who lived in the Eastern Siberian city of Chita, could not speak Russian and acted like an dog when police took her into care.

"For five years, the girl was 'brought up' by several dogs and cats and had never been outside," a police statement said.

"The unwashed girl was dressed in filthy clothes, had the clear attributes of an animal and jumped at people," it said.

The flat had no heat, water or sewage system.

A police spokeswoman said the girl, known as Natasha, is being monitored by psychologists in an orphanage. Her mother was being questioned but her father has not been found yet.

She appears to be about 2-years-old, though her real age is five, refuses to eat with a spoon and has taken on many of the gestures of the animals with which she lived, police said.

"When carers leave the room, the girl jumps at the door and barks," the police said.

Feral children, the stuff of folklore all over the world, usually exhibit the behavior of the animals with whom they have had closest contact, a condition known as the Mowgli Syndrome after the fictional child from Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" who was raised by wolves in the jungle.

Such children have usually built strong ties with the animals with whom they lived and find the transition to normal human contact extremely traumatic.

The story leaves me wondering:

How did this girl survive five winters in an unheated apartment in Siberia? Did she have any siblings? How were they treated? What was she fed? How much contact did she have with humans when she was fed? What will become of her? Why did her parents do this to her? Are they semi-retarded, or just cruel? What will be done to the parents?

Sadly, from what I remember about the few other reported cases of feral children, they never grow up to be remotely close to normal. Earlier on this blog there was a post about the backgrounds of children who grow up to be sociopaths ( This would certainly seem to be a case where the girl was destined for that outcome. She certainly couldn't have bonded with either of her parents, and at age five, it's too late for her to really do so with any new parental figure. Is it possible that she somehow bonded with some of the animals in a way that would allow for any sort of normal bonding with humans later on?

Tarzan of the Apes was supposed to have been brought up by great apes, yet still turned into an English gentleman when given the right training later in life. (Edgar Rice Burroughs was even more a believer in genetic destiny than E.O. Wilson.) But the Tarzan series was about as realistic as Burroughs' other books (which include "John Carter of Mars" and "At The Earth's Core.")

It's hard not to feel sorry for this girl. The odds are overwhelming that she will never have a normal relationship with another human being. And if she does turn out to be sociopath-like in her inability to bond, you can hardly blame her. It almost gives you some sympathy for other sociopaths; this girl's background is a sort of metaphor for most of theirs. Unlike them, however, she won't be able to do much harm, as she will not be able to blend in with the rest of the population the way they can. So our sympathy can be unalloyed.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Races I'd like to see

Another guest editorial I wrote for the Swimming World website:

Caution: You have to really be into swimming to find this interesting.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


(On left, Robert DeNiro with temporary tattoos applied to make him seem scary and creepy in Cape Fear; above, Angelina Jolie achieving the same effect with her real ones)

There is no more eloquent way of saying, "I'm not intelligent enough to realize that I might have a change of heart some day" than to get a tattoo. (The very best way of demonstrating this is to have the name of one's paramour inked on.)

Just as a British accent can give an impression of a high IQ (rightly or wrongly), a tattoo emits the aura of a low one (usually rightly).

They're certainly an effective vehicle for social mobility. Cover your body in ink and you travel instantaneously from upper class to lower class. (Or at least, from upper middle to lower middle.)

Tattoos can also be a way of advertising that one is dangerous. Think of the people who get them. Hell's Angels. Latin Kings. The Aryan Brotherhood. In Japan, the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) cover their bodies with them. Russian gangsters use them to tell their life stories (see Eastern Promises). And where do all these upstanding citizens get them? Often, in prison. Gang tats are a clear message that this is not a person to be trifled with. Which, I guess, is the point of getting them.

Of course, these days all sorts of people get tattoos. Baby Boomers grew up associating tattoos with guys from the WWII generation, many of whom sported relatively discreet, Popeye-style, military-themed tattoos. Today tattoos are considered cool again, for reasons that aren't entirely apparent. Do youngsters think if they get, say, that popular armlet tattoo, that people will find them original?

How do you react to a tattoo? Does it make you want to hire its wearer for your company? Have her baby-sit for you? Be friends with him?

Perhaps more to the point, does it make you want to have sex with the person more? (The presence of a tattoo unquestionably does lend that certain air of availability. In fact, young people sometimes refer to tattoos on young women as "tramp stamps.")

I've never understood the concept that tattoos are sexy. I could be with the most attractive woman in the world, but if she disrobed to reveal a tattoo in a private place, I suspect I would immediately be rendered impotent. Luckily, I've never had that experience.

Well, at least not because of a tattoo.

Facial tattoos send the strongest message of all: "I don't care about anything." Or maybe even, "I'm pretty much insane." If you've ever seen pictures of inmates with swastikas on their foreheads, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Should you ever wind up with one of these fellows as your cellmate, prepare to be very, uh, reasonable.

While Googling images of facial tattoos earlier today, I saw several photos of guys with "fuck you" inked across their foreheads (in two cases, where their eyebrows used to be). They needn't have been so specific: any facial tattoo communicates pretty much that same message.

When I heard about Mike Tyson's various early scrapes with the law, I thought, well, it's not entirely his fault, his background didn't exactly lend itself to a bookish existence. When I read about the Desiree Washington rape case, I thought, that poor guy has too much testosterone, he may not have fully comprehended how forceful he was being. When I heard about Tyson's comments to Lennox Lewis about how he wanted to eat Lewis's children, I thought, well, he's just trying to hype the fight. When I heard about the prefight scuffle with Lewis, I thought, okay, he's going to fight him anyway, he's just getting into the spirit of the occasion. When I saw Tyson bite part of Evander Holyfield's ear off, I thought, well, he was understandably chagrined about getting head butted.

It was only when I saw Mike Tyson's facial tattoo that it hit me he was truly disturbed.

When you see a tattoo, you have to wonder if the wearer was drunk when he got it. (If anybody ever dares you to do something, don't do it. It's not in your self-interest.)

When I was in ninth grade, partly out of peer pressure, I "experimented" with marijuana. (Okay, maybe I conducted a hundred such experiments.) Luckily, I carry no visible evidence of all those lapses of judgment.

Tattoos are the opposite. Lapse just once, and you get a permanent reminder.

The British scandal

The brouhaha in the House of Commons hasn't gotten much press over here, but it has stirred some very strong emotions over in the UK. Evidently numerous members of Parliament, under cover of their second home allowance, have put in for some extremely dubious expenses. They include the clearing of a moat, pet food, a trousers press, repairs on a partner's house, and fertilizer (the kind which gets spread on gardens, not voiced by politicians). The list of these abuses is evidently very extensive.

I've long resented the way that rich people in this country have been able to simply buy their way into public office. It's happened with Frank Lautenberg, John Heinz, Jon Corzine, Michael Bloomberg, various Kennedys and Rockefellers, and many, many others.

But one thing you can say for most of the rich people who spend their money to buy a political position is, however undeserving they are and out of control their egos may be, at least they're not doing it in order to feed at the public trough.

What was he told?

Barack Obama has changed his mind on more than enough issues to warrant the F-F label. He flip-flopped on the campaign finance issue, on the Palestinian question, on lobbyists, on earmarks, on the torture photos, on his first act as President being to sign an abortion rights bill, and now on the question of whether captive terrorists should be tried by military tribunals or civilian courts.

Some of Obama's flip-flopping (such as on campaign finance) is politics as usual, and as such deserves censure. But some of it is a little more forgivable, more a matter of his initial idealism running up against the hard realities of governing.

An example of the latter has been his change of heart regarding what to do with the captured terrorists. He has obviously been briefed by the CIA and NSA regarding foiled terrorist plots, the players involved, and what is still being plotted. What he has heard has obviously frightened him into changing his mind.

We kept hearing during the Bush administration about the many terrorist plans for wreaking widespread havoc on American soil, which never came fruition because of our government's vigilance. (We didn't hear the details, just that they were foiled.) New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who has been privy to some of this information, has devoted a fair amount of his manpower to an anti-terrorism task force.

It would certainly be interesting to find out the details of exactly what the jihadists had/have in mind for us.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Father of the Year

The following item appeared this morning in Yahoo News:

"JONESBORO, Ga. – A Georgia man is sentenced to 100 years in prison for poisoning his children to extort money from Campbell's Soup Co.

"William Cunningham was sentenced Thursday after a jury found him guilty on seven counts of aggravated assault for forcing the children in 2006 to eat soup laced with prescription drugs and lighter fluid.

"His 3-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter were hospitalized twice. A family member said the youngsters may suffer lifelong respiratory problems from lung damage caused by the lighter fluid.

"Cunningham's wife has since divorced him.

"Cunningham pleaded guilty in 2007 to a federal charge of making false claims against Campbell's Soup by threatening to sue them over the contaminated soup."

There are high IQ crimes and low IQ crimes. This is not one of the former.

A more appropriate punishment for Cunningham would be to have to imbibe that same nourishing formula he provided his children, once a month, for as many of those hundred years as he lasts.

A little more eye-for-an-eye Old Testament spirit in our legal system would undoubtedly have a dampening effect on our crime rates. There are practical limits to this: you can't kill Ted Bundy thirty-six times, nor, unfortunately, are there fifty billion dollars to steal back from Bernie Madoff. But to the extent you can take a tooth for a tooth, it would certainly serve justice.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bombs away

Yesterday three American soldiers were killed and nine wounded when a suicide bomber attacked them near a crowded outdoor market in Baghdad. Twelve civilians were killed and twenty-five wounded in the same attack.

Earlier the same day, a suicide bomber killed seven Sunni paramilitary officers (who worked for the US-backed government) in Kirkuk. Eight others were wounded.

Two days ago, on May 19th, a car bomb went off near a group of restaurants in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, killing 41 people and wounding over 70 more.

On May 6th, 15 people were killed by a car bomb at a vegetable market in Baghdad.

On April 29, two car bombs killed 51 people in Sadr City, a Shiite neighborhood.

Given the frequency of such bombings in Iraq, you'd think that people would make more of an effort to avoid crowded places.

If I lived in Iraq, I'd move my family to the countryside (if I could), and shop only at unpopular stores during off hours. I'd certainly never eat at a restaurant nestled into a group of other restaurants.

The only place I want to witness a bombing is on a movie screen. Actually, even there it's a little too jarring for my taste.

Hieronymus Bosch was an artist most famous for his triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Most of us have seen posters of it: on the left, a scene from the Garden of Eden; in the middle, a vision of paradise; and on the right, his vision of hell. The aftermath of a real bombing makes Bosch's vision of hell look like paradise. The scene is littered with corpses, and body parts are strewn everywhere. And though we first notice the number of dead, the wounded are often horrifically maimed.

The Sunnis and Shiites (especially the Sunnis, it seems) are hellbent on exterminating each other.

It's their country, let them do what they want. But why waste American lives in the bargain?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Elmore Leonard

This past Wednesday evening my son and I went to see Elmore Leonard, who was speaking at the New Canaan library.

He was introduced by columnist Mike Lupica as "our greatest living writer." I might give that nod to Tom Wolfe, but there's no doubting Leonard's greatness. He is unquestionably our foremost crime novelist. I have an entire bookcase shelf -- you might call it a shrine -- devoted to his novels.

What Leonard has in common with Wolfe is his skill in creating dramatic, climactic showdowns between macho characters. They both understand courage and cowardice, intimidation and retreat. What Leonard has over Wolfe is that he has a great feel for how sociopaths think and act, and knows how they differ from the rest of us. Wolfe has a tendency to make all of his characters equally venal and self-serving. (What Wolfe has over Leonard is that he ranges over a wider variety of social milieus, and perhaps has a keener eye for status considerations.) Both men have great, sly senses of humor.

Leonard's characters tend to hang out in places like The Glades Correctional Facility in Florida, or the Kronk Gymnasium in Detroit. They are mostly low-lives: fortune tellers, loan sharks, small time gangsters, and the like. For those of us who have led relatively sheltered lives, they illuminate that world in a way that makes it come alive and seem very real.

When you go see someone like Leonard, you don't really expect to learn anything about him, or from him. You do that from reading his books, and reading about him. It's more to just see the great man, soak up his aura, sort of sniff him. There's a certain quiet thrill in seeing the actual human being behind all those enjoyable adventures you've read. And maybe you can give yourself a conversation- (or blog-) piece later on.

Leonard read a bit from his latest book, "Road Dogs." He also answered a few questions, including this one from a young-ish man: "Do you write to escape, or to find yourself?" (I guess no matter how rich or successful you get, you're never entirely insulated from stupidity. Leonard's answer was, "I write for the money, and I also enjoy it.")

Leonard let on that most of the movies which had been made from his books were lousy, though he liked "Hombre" and "Get Shorty." This was no surprise; I've seen many of those movies.

It was obvious that even at 83 he's still quite sharp, which is encouraging for all of us who are younger. He's not a particularly distinctive-looking fellow. I've seen his picture in the back of most of his books, and as always when I read a book, have found myself turning to look at his picture fairly frequently. Yet if I saw him on the street, I doubt that I'd recognize him.

He reiterated a few of his rules of writing, including this fairly famous one: "If it sounds like writing, re-write it."

He also said that he tries not to get in the way of his characters. This is a quest in which he succeeds admirably. When you read him, you really feel you're in a shack on the fringes of the Everglades listening to some drug dealers, or in a Michigan prison yard listening to real inmates.

My son and I sat in the back of the audience so that we could leave early without causing a scene. As a result, even though I raised my hand several times during the Q and A session afterward, I was never called on. What I had intended to say was this: "I just wanted to pass along an observation my seventeen year old son, who's a big fan of yours, made a few minutes ago. He said, 'Here we are in the New Canaan Public Library surrounded by a group of well-behaved, respectful, bookish people. I can't imagine a more un-Elmore Leonard-like setting'."

Had that gotten a good response, I would have added, "Please promise me one thing, that you'll use this setting in at least one of your books in the future."

It would have been a vain request, but it might have given the great man a small chuckle.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Coolest thief ever

Albert Spaggiari (1932-1989) is known as the mastermind behind what was known at the time as the greatest heist ever, the robbery of the Societe Generale bank in Nice, France, in 1976.

Spaggiari grew up in Hyeres, the son of a shopkeeper. The story -- perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not -- is that he committed his first robbery in order to be able to give a girlfriend a diamond.

As a young man, Spaggiari joined the French Foreign Legion, the legendary refuge for criminals on the lam. He later fought as a paratrooper in the Indochina War.

He became involved with the OAS, the secretive nationalist organization which wanted France to maintain control of Algeria. He was sent to prison for several years for his OAS activities. He wrote his first book, (translated as) "One Needn't Laugh with the Barbarians," during this stretch.

By 1976 he was living a quiet middle class life as the owner of a photography studio in Nice. But he was bored, and as he later described it, felt like a "200 pound walking carcass."

When Spaggiari heard that the vault of the Societe Generale bank in Nice was located right next to the sewer lines, he began planning. He rented a safety deposit box himself and placed an alarm clock in it; he set the alarm to go off in the middle of the night to check to see if there was any acoustic or seismic detection gear. But there was none, since the vault was considered impregnable.

With the aid of the Corsican Union (the French Mafia), along with some ex-OAS friends, Spaggiari put together a team of men to do the job. They spent two long months digging a twenty-six foot long tunnel from the sewers into the vault. Finally, on July 16, during the middle of the Bastille Day celebration, the men broke in. Spaggiari then served his men a meal of wine and pate so they could have their own celebration inside the vault. They then opened 400 deposit boxes and made off with 60 million francs.

Before they left, the men wrote on the wall of the vault, in French, "Without hatred, without violence, without weapons." (This later became the title of a French movie about the robbery.)

At first the police were baffled by the break in. But by October, a former girlfriend of one of the thieves tipped them off, and they arrested the man. The man eventually broke down after an extended interrogation and named names. Spaggiari was arrested along with the rest of the gang.

Spaggiari hired an old friend, Jacques Peyrat, a French Foreign Legion veteran who was a member of the National Front, to be his lawyer.

During his hearings, Spaggiari convinced the judge that the purpose of the heist was to finance a secret political organization called Catena. (Spaggiari's previous involvement with the OAS made this claim more credible, but in fact the organization was totally fictitious.) Spaggiari then wrote up a document which he claimed was proof of the existence of this organization. He coded the document so that he would need to spend more time with Judge Bouaziz in his second floor chambers.

One day, while conferring with the judge, Spaggiari walked to the second floor window, opened it, and jumped down onto the roof of a car parked below. He rolled off the car like the paratrooper he was and onto the back of a waiting motorcycle, which sped off through the traffic. As the judge stared open-mouthed from the open window, Spaggiari turned and gave him the finger.

Spaggiari was never caught.

After his escape, Spaggiari was sentenced in absentia to life in prison. He reportedly went to Argentina and underwent plastic surgery to make himself unrecognizable. He also was rumored to have returned to France several times, secretly visiting his mother and his wife.

Spaggiari later wrote a book about his escapades, "Fric-Frac: The Great Riviera Bank Robbery." He described how, with the war over and most of his friends dead, he had felt trapped by his humdrum existence in modern society. He also gave an account of how distasteful it was to have had to spend such a long time in the fetid sewers.

Spaggiari died of throat cancer in 1989 while with his wife in the Piedmont section of Italy.

Hollywood has a tendency to make movies about lovable, loyal, admirable, honorable criminals, as in The Godfather, The Sting, Oceans Eleven, and so on. Such characterizations are almost always misleading.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Another Eco-hypocrite

From this morning's NY Post:

"TRUDIE Styler -- who co-founded the Rainforest Foundation 20 years ago -- flew her hairstylist from New York to Washington, DC, last weekend on a private jet to do her hair and makeup for the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

"While her husband, Sting, flew on commercial flights round-trip from London, Styler and an entourage of eight, including her Manhattan-based hair guru Antonio Prieto, took a private plane to the event, instead of taking the shuttle or taking an energy-saving Amtrak train.

"'The stylist was added to a previous scheduled flight to DC and flew back commercially,' a rep for Styler told Page Six.

"Styler herself added, 'Yes, I do take planes. My life is to travel and my life is also to speak out about the horrors of an environment that is being abused at the hands of oil companies.'

"The rocker and his wife are big proponents of saving the rainforests. But as The Post reported last year, Sting's star-studded charity concert for the Rainforest Foundation in 2006 donated only 41 percent of the proceeds to tree-saving programs. Well-run charities typically spend 75 percent on programs.

"Last May, Britain's Daily Mail reported the couple owns seven homes and 'have a carbon footprint estimated at 30 times that of the average UK resident'."

Why is it that those celebrities most preachy about the environment are invariably the most wasteful themselves?

There's definitely a correlation. Al Gore and his gigantic mansion in Tennessee with a carbon footprint twenty times that of the average US household. Barbra Streisand with a room just for her furs which she keeps at fifty-five degrees all summer (after telling the rest of us that we should only turn our thermostats down to eighty). John Edwards, who campaigned as an environmentalist, and his 25,000 square foot house. Leo DiCaprio and his private planes. John Travolta and his private fleet of jumbo jets.

The common thread seems to be self-indulgence. It takes a very self-indulgent person to surround themselves with gigantic mansions and fly on private planes. And it takes a very self-indulgent person to preach to us common folk how we should lead our lives. (In psychology, such people are known as narcissistic personalities.)

It's true, part of the reason that celebrities are so wasteful is because they are rich, and some of us common folk, had we similar bank accounts, would be wasteful too. But most of us, even if we did indulge ourselves, wouldn't compound the sin by telling everybody else they should be the ones to sacrifice.

Those evil oil companies Trudie Styler rails against must be delighted to have her as a customer.

You didn't have to bother to read either the Post article or this blogpost, by the way. All you had to do was look at the picture. The over-collagened lips, the extreme nose job, the too-tight face lift, and the self-satisfied smile tell you all you really need to know about Trudie.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Straight from Central Casting

Sometimes, when I see photos of criminals, I'm surprised by how good-looking they are. (This happens more frequently with men, as good-looking women rarely need to turn to crime.) Sociopaths, those lowest forms of humanity, often look like the boy -- or girl -- next door. Their outward appearance rarely reflects their inner monstrousness.

But every now and then, nature cooperates beyond our wildest expectations.

The couple pictured above, Gale and Sheila Muhs of Westlake, Texas, were arrested two days ago for having leveled shotgun blasts at a family which was doing some off-road ATVing on public property. The Muhs evidently mistakenly thought that the ATVers were on their property. Sheila Muhs took aim with a 12 gauge shotgun, and handed the gun to husband Gale, who took a turn. Each then took a subsequent turn. They killed the family's 7 year old boy and wounded his 5 year old sister. The father was also wounded, and a 30 year old friend of the family is in serious condition.

Hollywood often casts people who look like this (these two look like extras from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) to play the part of Southern hicks who terrorize the tourists who happen to pass through their communities. This is a common horror movie theme. When I see such movies -- and actors -- I usually attribute them to the prejudices of Hollywood directors and producers (who themselves are usually at least as prejudiced, albeit in a different direction, as the people whom they portray as bigots). I always think, that's not my experience of Southerners. I've found Southerners mostly friendly and hospitable. And often, quite good-looking.

I may now have to reconsider.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

We're all just products of our time

Whenever I read about a large group of people who are all made out to be horrible human beings, I always think, I doubt their natures are much worse than other group's. Their leaders were probably evil, but people who rise to power anywhere often are. Political leaders from any era are usually at least narcissistic, and quite often, even sociopathic, even if the public doesn't realize it. But the rank and file of any organization, or country, tend to be normal people with normal psyches.

If I had been brought up in Germany in the 1930's, and had been taught that Jewish people were the devil's spawn, I'd probably believe that. If I had been brought up in the South Africa of the 1960's, I'd probably think that segregation was the natural way of things.

And so would you.

Some people seem to feel that had they lived in another era, they would have somehow miraculously retained their current sensibilities. This is ludicrous. I generally find that the people who believe this most strongly are those most thoroughly inculcated with the currently politically correct attitudes, i.e., those people most obviously unable to think for themselves. So in fact, they'd likely be the biggest True Believers in whatever culture they found themselves.

It takes an extraordinary individual to see through and rise above the beliefs of his time. Most of us are simply not that extraordinary. Certainly not me.

If I had been brought up in the South of the 1820's, I might not have questioned slavery. (I'd like to think I would have, but I probably would have just accepted the status quo.)

Had I been brought up in Europe circa 1600, I would probably have felt that the sun orbited the earth and that to say otherwise was sacrilegious. (It's just common sense -- the sun does rise and set over our seemingly unmoving planet every day, and it certainly looks smaller than Earth.) I might not have wanted Galileo tried and sentenced by the Inquisition; but I undoubtedly would have thought him wrongheaded.

Had I been an Apache of roughly 2000 years ago, I would have responded to drought by doing a rain dance. Had the Great Spirit in the Sky answered with a thunderstorm, I would have thought him angry.

Had I been brought up in present day Afghanistan, I would surely be shocked to see a woman's naked face in public, and appalled at the idea that she might want to learn to read. And I would certainly be hopeful, if perhaps not quite sure, that 70 virgins awaited me in heaven.

We can look down our noses at people from other eras or other cultures as woefully benighted, but it's not as if most of us are able to rise above the petty prejudices and silly beliefs of our own time and place. Are we individually so much more clever than those who preceded us? How much human evolution could have taken place in the past few hundred years? Speaking of which, we look down upon those who do not believe in evolution, but when Darwin's theories were first debated in London, Samuel Wilberforce, who was arguing the con case, asked his opponent, Thomas Huxley, if he himself was descended from an ape on his mother's or his father's side. (Huxley responded that he would rather be descended from an ape than from a man who used his great talents to suppress debate.) Wilberforce may have been on the wrong side of the argument, but how many people do you know who would have the cleverness, the intelligence, to come up with that line? (Even if they do live in a more enlightened era as far as evolution goes.)

The more interesting question, of course, is what will the Americans of 100, or 200 years from now think of us? Will they regard us as environmental criminals for squandering fuel oil so wastefully with our gas-burning cars? Will they laugh at us for our taboos against speaking honestly about race and gender?

The only thing we can be sure of is that they will think we lived in the Dark Ages.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


(Silvio Berlusconi, Prime minister of Italy, and wife Veronica Lario)

Silvio Berlusconi has been back in the news recently since his wife has decided to file for a divorce. Former actress Veronica Lario (who bears a passing resemblance to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, if you've ever seen the movie) issued a terse one sentence statement three days ago saying, "It's a personal issue.....which is in the private sphere and which seems necessary not to speak about."

She's certainly had plenty to say in the past. Just last week, angry at her husband for having lined up showgirls and TV starlets as European Parliament candidates, she said, "The impudence and shamelessness of power offends the credibility of all [women], and damages women in general."

But Silvio Berlusconi has always shown a certain impudence. When he held a joint press conference with Danish leader Anders Rasmussen in 2003, he declared, "Rasmussen is the most handsome Prime Minister in Europe. I'm thinking of introducing him to my wife because he's much more handsome than Cacciari." (At the time, Berlusconi's wife was rumored to be having an affair with leftist philosophy professor Massimo Cacciari.)

Berlusconi himself, of course, has been linked to countless women, as befits an energetic Mediterranean with a net worth reputedly over nine billion dollars. And he is very uninhibited about expressing both his desires and his opinions, which makes him very quotable.

Whether you view Berlusconi's behavior as boyishly mischevious, or as coarse, depends on your point of view. A few examples:

in 2002, at a European Union summit, Berlusconi held up two fingers (making the sign of a cuckold) behind the head of the Spanish foreign minister, Josep Pique. Berlusconi later explained that he was "just kidding" and that he was trying to create friendship, cordiality, fondness, and kind relationships among the attendees. Oh, and he was also trying to amuse a small group of Boy Scouts who happened to be present.

In 2003, while acting as President of the European Union, Berlusconi told the assembled heads of state that they should lighten the mood by talking about "soccer and women." He then suggested to Gerhard Schroder, the former German Chancellor who had been married several times, that he might have some good stories to tell.

In May of 2005, Berlusconi claimed that he had been forced to "dust off my playboy skills" to convince Finnish president Tarja Halonen, who is not known for her looks, to agree to open the European Food Safety Authority in Parma, rather than Finland. This comment caused great consternation in Finland. (A minister in Berlusconi's Cabinet later excused his boss by saying, "Anybody who had seen a picture of Halonen must have known he was kidding.")

In 2006, Berlusconi defended claims he had made that "the Communists used to eat children" by saying that during the era of Chairman Mao, the Chinese "did not eat children, but had them boiled to fertilize the fields." Berlusconi later said, "It was questionable irony. Because this joke is questionable. But I do not know how to restrain myself."

At an awards dinner in 2007, Berlusconi announced to former showgirl and Forza Italia representative Mara Carfagna, "If I weren't already married, I would marry you right away. With you, I'd go anywhere." (Mara Carfagna is now serving under Berlusconi as Minister for Equal Opportunities.)

During the lead up for the 2008 Italian elections, Berlusconi observed that right-wing female politicians were far better-looking than the left-wing ones. After the center-left parties objected to his sexism, he further offered, "The left has no taste, even when it comes to women."

Shortly after Barack Obama was elected President, Berlusconi said Russian President Medvedev should have no problem getting along with him, because Obama is "tall, handsome, and suntanned."

When asked if he would be attending Obama's inauguration, however, Berlusconi declined, saying, "I'm not an extra in a movie cast; I'm a lead actor."

In 2009, two days after the earthquake which took 290 lives near Abruzzo, Berlusconi suggested that the newly homeless should view their experience as a camping weekend.

It's a little like what would happen if they appointed Charles Barkley President of the United States.

Perhaps a better comparison would be Donald Trump, except that Trump takes himself too seriously (and he's not nearly as rich). If you're looking for a billionaire who actually seems to enjoy his money as much as Berlusconi does, Richard Branson comes to mind. But Branson gives off a liberal, hippieish vibe that makes him the opposite of Berlusconi. It's hard to think of an American equivalent of Berlusconi, since Berlusconi's domination (read: ownership) of the Italian media is so complete. Perhaps as far as tycoons go, Mexico's Carlos Slim Helu would be a better comparison. But Helu has no political ambitions, and no personal flair.

The coverage Berlusconi gets is not dissimilar to what Idi Amin, the former Ugandan dictator from the 1970's, used to get. Amin, known mostly for his buffoonish antics before his bloodthirsty side was revealed to the world, would always have several of his more colorful antics described whenever there was an article about him. Similarly, it's hard to find an article about Berlusconi which doesn't include several of his more colorful remarks (this post obviously being no exception).

There is a darker side to Berlusconi as well. Much of his energy while in office has been spent pushing legislation which would be helpful to his business interests. And he has been linked to the Mafia. (One does not rise from cruise ship singer to multi-billionaire without having a hard edge.) This post is not an attempt to justify his politics. It is merely to give a sense of his personality.

Is he too much of a buffoon or is the rest of the world (especially the Anglo-Saxon world) too stiff?

The truth is probably somewhere in between. What is beyond question is that he is far more entertaining than most heads of state.

Most headlines are not very inviting. But if I see the word "Berlusconi" in one, I'll read the article.

That's saying something.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Speak Austrian?

In 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle spelled the word "potato" wrong (he had been given a flash card with the word spelled with an extra "e" at the end), the media went into an absolute frenzy, the virulence of which is best illustrated by the fact that if you're over 35 you probably remember the incident.

I read this morning that Barack Obama, on his recent European trip, allowed as he didn't know how to translate a certain word "into Austrian." (There is no such language, Austrians speak German.) During his campaign Obama evidently said, "I've been in 57 states, [with] I think one left to go."

You probably haven't heard of those two incidents. Neither had I, until today. That's because there's been near complete media blackout on them.

It brings to mind the old adage, "If a tree falls in the woods but there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Evidently, only if a Republican chops it down.

What would have happened if Dan Quayle had made those gaffes? The news channels would have replayed the tapes of them endlessly. The late night comedians would have gone wild with jokes about how they were learning Austrian, or how Dan Quayle's Austrian lessons were progressing, or about hapless German tourists in Austria having to use sign language with the natives. The media barons would have commissioned polls to find out what percent of fourth graders know how many states there are, so as to make invidious comparisons with Dan Quayle. He would have been constantly referred to as "Dan Quayle, Vice President of the 58 United States of America." The gaffes would have become instant pop culture.

Yet it was Barack Obama who made them, so there is only a deafening silence.

If Obama had said 57 states, with three to go, you might be able to attribute the error to tiredness (campaigns are exhausting), and just assume that he knew there were 50 states, but made a slip. But to say 57, with one to go....yikes. (It's a lot harder to get both digits wrong.)

Which is the more egregious error -- misspelling "potato" when you've been handed a flash card with the wrong spelling, or thinking there are 58 states? You be the judge.

One more comparison. George Bush the Elder was practically crucified for going back on his "Read my lips -- no new taxes" statement. Obama said several times during the campaign that he was going to end the culture of entitlement in Washington and slash earmarks. Yet as soon as he got into office he eagerly signed the stimulus bill, which contained over 8500 earmarks. (In fact, the case can be made that the bill was nothing but earmarks.) Contrast his behavior to Bush's: Bush resisted raising taxes several times, but eventually, worn down by a Democratic-controlled Congress determined to raise taxes, compromised.

Yet how often do we hear the media excoriate Obama for this?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Link to swimming article

I wrote the following "guest editorial" which appeared today on, the Swimming World website:

The NY Times vs. the unions

The New York Times, owner of the Boston Globe, and the Globe's largest worker's union suspended all night contract talks this morning, unable to reach agreement.

NY Times chairman Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger stated last month that "the Globe's costs and revenues have to be brought more into alignment."

The Times Company has threatened to close the Globe unless the unions agree to $20 million in concessions. The Boston Newspaper Guild, the largest union, called this a "bullying tactic."

Strange. The Times is all for the unions in Detroit. In fact just this past weekend they ran an editorial in the business section suggesting the hedge funds which own Chrysler bonds stop whining and accept the government-backed deal, which would give the UAW 55% ownership in a new Chrysler Corporation -- at their expense. This, by the way, is a heretofore unheard of arrangement. In previous bankruptcies the bondholders would gain control, as they have first call on the assets of a company unable to pay the interest or principle on its debt. This time around, in a deal brokered by Obama's Treasury Department, the bondholders would simply cede ownership to the unions. (Granted, this picture is more complicated by the fact that the government has also put money into the Chrysler.)

Obama, of course, won the election with the backing of the UAW and other major unions, to which he is beholden.

The New York Times, of course, is a charter member of the Obama Cheerleading Squad, and has backed him in virtually every one of his stances, including his unilateral support of the unions.

But when it comes to their own self interest, The Times sees the necessity of bringing "the Globe's costs and revenues into alignment." This of course is a euphemistic way of saying that the the Newspaper Guild is a bug to be squashed.

But wasn't that precisely the problem in Detroit? That the car companies were paying out too much in benefits given how little revenue the cars were bringing in?

There is something inherently, perfectly, deliciously gratifying about watching the NY Times battle its own unions.

Maybe the solution is for the NY Times to just hand over a 55% ownership stake to the Newspaper Guild.

It was good enough for the hedge funds. Why not the Times?

Equestrian events and yachting

Just read this morning on Page Six of the NY Post (I have an enquiring mind, as they used to say) that Georgina Bloomberg, the mayor's daughter, competed this past weekend in her quest to make the 2012 US Equestrian team for the Olympics.

What a travesty. Two events which should never have never been part of the Olympic program are the Equestrian events and yachting.

The Olympics are supposed to be a continuation of the ancient Greek games determining who could jump the furthest, run the fastest, wrestle the best, etc. There has always been a certain military flavor to the modern Games (pistol shooting, archery, the pentathlon), and horseback riding was certainly an important part of warfare through the ages. But the equestrian events as currently constituted are all about being able to buy the most expensive horses, stable them, hire the best trainers, etc, which leaves them closed to all but a very few. (As best I can recall, the Greeks never had an event called "Who's got the richest Daddy?")

It wouldn't be so bad if all the riders competed on the same set of horses, to see, say, who could shoot a standard bow and arrow most accurately from the back of a moving animal. But that's not the way the sport works. What counts now is how much horse you can afford. (The gold medal should really go to the horse, not the rider.)

An Olympic champion in dressage is a great athlete in pretty much the same sense that George Steinbrenner is a great athlete.

Yachting, by the way, is somewhat of a misnomer, as the boats used bear much more resemblance to Sunfish than to the monstrosity owned by Larry Ellison. Still, how many people is this open to?

These two sports are holdovers from the old days of Avery Brundage, a rich man who felt that his friends ought to get to play in the Games while anybody who needed financial help, i.e., lower or middle class people who might take sponsorship dollars, should not.

Admittedly, sports like gymnastics and swimming require at least a middle class background (poor people have neither the money nor the leisure time to participate), but those at least are about physical ability. We watch the Olympics to marvel at the prowess of athletes who make us think, "Wow, I could never do that!" (Not to think, "Damn, I wish my parents had had more money.")

While I'm ranting: no sport for which the Olympics does not represent the peak of achievement should be in the Olympics. Runners, wrestlers, swimmers, and gymnasts grow up dreaming of becoming Olympic champions. Tennis players grow up dreaming of Wimbledon, and basketball players grow up dreaming of lucrative NBA contracts. Those sports should not be part of the Games. The basketball situation is a little more complicated, the former Soviet bloc countries generally don't have professional basketball the way we do (even though their players sometimes come to the NBA), and their basketball teams can be a source of great national pride (witness Lithuania). Nonetheless, the NBA does beckon, and there is professional basketball in Europe, so I'd vote no on basketball. Tennis should definitely not be a part of the Games. Recently they've even talked about including golf; thank goodness that idea was tabled.

The Olympic Village should be filled with people for whom those two weeks are the highlight of their lives, not with people who are slumming.

One sport which should be expanded is the triathlon, which is now contested at only one distance. A longer event, perhaps a half or full Ironman, should be included, since many people compete at those distances and the physical fortitude required is certainly in keeping with Olympic ideal. One sport which currently isn't included at all, but should be, is (UFC-style) mixed martial arts, which comes closer to the ancient Greek sport of pankration than any of the individual combat sports do.

Friday, May 1, 2009

An exclusive club

Why does the United States acts as if it has the sole right to act as gatekeeper to the nuclear club? Who are we to determine who gets what?

As of now, the nuclear club includes the UK, France, China, Russia, and probably Israel. And the US has deployed nuclear bombs in Canada, Greece, Turkey, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands (all members of NATO). Stable countries all. Right?

China's record on human rights is far from acceptable. France wouldn't even let us fly over their air space when we wanted to get back at Libya in the 1980's for their terrorism. Germany and Italy were our enemies in the last World War. Pakistan seems about to plunge into civil war, with the Taliban on one side and an extremely corrupt government on the other. Israel spies on us and does its best to keep us involved in conflict in the Mideast. Russia was our great adversary in the Cold War, and more recently invaded Georgia.

Hmm.....I wonder what would happen if we told Russia that we considered it simply unacceptable for them to have nuclear weapons. That wouldn't have a pretty outcome.

So we pick on Iran and North Korea instead.

Or what if, say, the European Union told us that we shouldn't have nuclear weapons, since so far we're the only country which has shown any willingness to actually use them, and we did so on a civilian population.

Would it be their place to tell us that?

Is it ours to tell anyone else?