Monday, November 30, 2009

Almost the Season

Part of the job of this blog is pointing out things you might have missed. It's tough and dirty work, but someone has to do it. In that light, it doesn't matter why I was paging through a copy of Better Homes and Gardens the other day. It really doesn't. But what brought me up short was an ad put in by McDonald's. An elegant-looking mom and her daughter, perhaps three or four years old, appear to be dancing, or just having fun. Fair enough, but why does the "mom's" oh-so-slender left arm have a tattoo on it? I'm sure it's not there by accident, but is this a subtle product placement by the Tattoo Association? Doubtful. A message from the advertiser of some kind? If so, I can't figure what it would be. Maybe it started with the companies that makes the needles or the ink. Anyone have a better idea? December 2009 issue, page 230.

I heard some interesting statistics the other day. It had to do with the annual cost per person (all ages) in a given country for all military spending. In lightly armed Japan, the figure comes out to about $300, while in Germany, it's a little over $500. Can you see where we're headed here? In the US it's more, but how much more? It's $2700 per person, per year, and rising. I'm sure the other countries mentioned find ways to waste money, but what do you think we have to do without in order to shoulder that load?
And speaking of loads, President Obama will be announcing within 24 hours that we feel the Afghans' pain enough to send another 30-35,000 troops in order to train the locals (as if they didn't already to how to shoot) and preserve their tissue-thin hold on democracy.
On balance, I support the president, but fear this decision may be a clinker. If we haven't won over the minds and hearts of the Afghans in eight years, just what is there left to do? Are there goverrnment officials there who haven't become rich off corruption yet? That's hard to believe. What's sadly easy to believe is that Mr. Obama just doesn't want to be known as the guy who pulled out, a decision that would take considerable nerve.
So what should we, the un-enlisted, do? Let your boys play soldier - they'll need the skills soon enough. Ditto computer games with names like "Total Armageddon II", an update from TA I. Dump Spanish and French classes and get them into Arabic, or at least into ROTC, where they'll learn the meaning of words like "Hadji".
And we may as well announce in the Season that future offerings of Economics 375, "Beating Swords into Plowshares", will now be for just one credit hour and taught by the Philosophy and Religion Department every other year by gypsy scholars with no tenure. It will be a prerequisite for.....nothing at all. The Econ Department will continue to offer Econ 376, "The Permanent War-Based Economy".

Monday, November 23, 2009

This is Funny?

Among the kinds of people I don't want to be is the kind that hit you over the head with the significance of this or that holiday. I think it's good to be a thankful person every day, but let's leave it at that. I saw a program on PBS that shows how badly things can go. It was all about how hard it was to survive the abuses of the Dust Bowl era of the 1930's. One little piece of evidence got my attention. A birds nest was found in a tree in a community I can't recall, in the afflicted area of the Southern Plains. Not too unusual, except that this nest was 100% made from bits of barbed wire! When it's easier for birds to find barbed wire than grass or twigs, that tells you things are seriously un-normal. So, recession and all, it could always be worse.

Sometimes people create things that inadvertently let another message slip through, if you're quick enough to notice it. It's a bit like watching "Gone With The Wind", a movie that reveals as much about the year it was made as it does about the period of the Civil War.
I saw an AT&T commercial that at first seemed funny, but then caused me to wonder what someone must have been thinking. A father (of course he's a dope) strolls toward the TV to turn the channel to "the game", but he's stopped by the wife, son, and daughter, all brandishing TV remotes and insisting on their own favorite shows. The four family members are left to work out their differences. The commercial's ostensible message? Our DVR lets you record up to four other programs at once.
The unstated message? Take your pick: the TV remote as a weapon, either as a gun or a "Star Wars" light saber, the children's goals as morally equal to the parents', the hapless unarmed father's weak plea to work things out peacefully while facing down three weapons, OR the fact that we're chuckling at a scene which mocks the real violence which takes place in homes almost daily somewhere in the country, and sometimes over issues even smaller than TV.
If you haven't seen this little gem, you probably will soon. Meanwhile, here I am, old humorless coot wondering how this is funny. It's sure a long way from "Father Knows Best".

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Defending the President

Every season has "big games", but they don't come much bigger than the one my beloved Hawkeyes had last Saturday. The opponent: Ohio State, the venue, Ohio Stadium, which holds 105,000 people, 99% of them pulling for the home team, the hurdle: having to start a freshman quarterback in place of the injured starter. The game was on network TV (even here!), and you'll seldom see a better one. The results? Ohio Sate wins in overtime to get a date at the Rose Bowl. And for Iowa? First the duty of beating Minnesota this Saturday, then find out which bowl they'll be playing in, which takes some guessing because there are more than 30 bowls every year. But only one Rose Bowl. Dang.

Now to this week's subject. I've mentioned before the dubious habit I have of reading the on-line version of the church-owned Deseret News (and that's the correct spelling) from Salt Lake City. It's a way of checking how my opinions compare to other readers whose postings are found by the bucketful every day. I'm in there tooth and nail with my own comments, though I refrain from actual insults against the other posters. I admit that some days it's a fine line.
I'm surprised at some of the folks these conservative, but usually likable, people choose to demonize. Their feelings about President Jimmy Carter, for instance, always leave me wondering how anyone could be so vicious against someone they never met. Now it's true that I've had ungracious things to say about a number of well-known Republicans, with Cheney and Bush heading the list, but gee, Carter left office a full 28 years ago, and has been doing good Christian things ever since even though he's now past 80 years old. He even spoke up to his fellow Baptists insisting that Mormons are Christians, though he didn't have to.
That seems to get him nowhere with the Utah faithful, though I'm sure Carter's no longer trying to win them over. They sneer at him as a peanut farmer though many of them have agricultural backgrounds, and they ignore his formal education in nuclear engineering, obtained in the Navy. And in the tradition of "We only remember each president for ONE thing", there's the Iranian hostage crisis.
Yes, it was 30 years ago, so we can't be expected to remember everything about it. But what I read from the Utah yokels is that Carter was simply too timid to bomb the bejesus out of the Iranians, and that it was only threats from the newly elected Reagan that got the hostages released. It's as if their personal dislike for the man justifies the factual rewriting of history, because both contentions are either silly or totally wrong.
Can you visualize George Bush risking his own prestige to broker a permanent peace between Egypt and Israel? I can't. Nor did I see any of our recent GOP presidents insisting that planning for energy independence was worth some current investment. Reagan, in fact, did the opposite.
But I don't insist that Carter was a great president. He wasn't. Even so, I find him well worth defending.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Afghan Question, Part II

As stated here before, we (the voters) hire a president mostly to make good decisions. And the most important decisions are in two categories: keeping the economy going, or restarting it and establishing and maintaining peace. If a president gets those two items right, he will likely be remembered fondly by history. If either is messed up, then all bets are off.
So what President Obama decides about Afghanistan, already our longest-lasting conflict ever, is important. Here's what we would like to have happen there: the country emerges as a true democracy in the geographic midst of dictatorships and theocracies, the Taliban is removed as a threat to the government, no part of the country is exploited by Al Qaeda or anyone else as a staging ground for attacks on the US, Israel or Pakistan, and other Mideast countries copy their once looked-down-on brother. Oh, and opium is replaced by something else as the country's cash crop.
That's quite ambitious. Would we settle for less than the entire list? Yes, we would if we were sure that any military trouble would be strictly local and posed no threat to Afghanistan's neighbors. As for the rest, it's hard to imagine the democratization of a country run by tribes except in its capital. There is no Afghan middle class at all, and few means to create one, since opium seems to be the only stuff that grows there and there is no oil. And, contrary to almost the entire world, the Afghans don't seem to mind war as a way of life, though they seem to have had their fill of the Taliban.
I can't see how we come out winners here. Terrorists will always find a place to operate from. One cave is as good as the next. Nation building? That might have been the one thing Bush was right about. You can't do it for someone else regardless of what you're willing to spend. The Pakistanis have a sizable military, and if they start, as part of defending themselves from Islamic radicals, to make the Indians next door nervous, we can offer assurances that the Pakistanis won't aim their nuclear weapons at New Delhi. And even if all Afghans decide that it's "Death to America", they pose no threat except as individuals, something we are already spending enormous resources to combat.
I heard on NPR today that the President is trying very hard to make a good decision here, but that the option of simply pulling out of Afghanistan has been scratched from his list. At least his method for deciding these things goes well past Bush's famous decision-making "gut" - the organ that gave us Iraq. Anyway, I won't hold my breath, but still wish we could give peace some kind of chance. It's hard to see the upside of thousands more troops in a country that has never been successfully occupied, and which we've already failed to pacify after eight years.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Afghan Question, Part I

Taking pleasure in others' misery is, no doubt, a bit of a sin. There's a German word for it, which I certainly couldn't spell. Nevertheless, I couldn't keep from chucking a little when I heard that GM had sold the Hummer label to a Chinese company.

Now to our title subject, this time by an indirect route. What gives me, who have never been in any war in any capacity, to comment at all on this subject, which is currently soaking up so much brainpower in Washington?
What indeed, other than living in a free society in which uninformed or outright ridiculous ideas have no legal restriction, allows me to comment on anything with any expectation that others might read and agree?
Indulge me for a bit as we return to that cauldron of controversy, the 1960s. My father had a Ph.D. in Chemistry, and my mother was trained as an R.N. Even so, both had small town backgrounds and shared the massive blind spot of that generation regarding how citizens with different backgrounds should treat one another. As I grew, it seemed that their indifference to the Civil Right issue especially called into question the validity of ALL their views. I wasn't a rebel in any real way, but started to check other sources of information, which I became more familiar with as a member of the Debate Club in high school, which was a bigger deal than you might think, at least to me.
Of course, this didn't happen all at once. Lyndon Johnson had put U.S. combat troops in Vietnam two full years before I started paying much attention. The prospect of the military draft tends to put one's thoughts into focus as few other things would.
So I turned to the scholars seeking information I could put some faith in. Scholars and journalists, it seemed to me, were less liable to be "mobbed up" with the dopes who had been wrong on Civil Rights. I strongly wanted to be a scholar myself at the time. Who could have foreseen the beating the scholars would take in society in subsequent years, when the phrase "Can you get a job with that?" became the poor man's shortcut to wisdom?
Taking this approach, it wasn't hard to conclude that Johnson, using all the brainy guys Kennedy had left behind, along with the hubris-infected military brass, who knew little or nothing about the whole Southeast Asian subcontinent and, worse, didn't even know the depths of their own ignorance, could not have been more wrong about Vietnam. My hindsight was 20-20, naturally, and I've come to think now that Kennedy may have made the same blunders, had he lived, as Johnson.
The next entry here will finally tackle the Afghan question, but I thought it might be helpful to get some personal background before I simply blurt out how I feel without any explanation. Sure, all this so far was forty plus years ago, but that doesn't make it irrelevant to today's choices.