Saturday, July 08, 2006

Missile Envy: North Korea, Bush Ally

There is of course no danger of a Kim Jong Il-starred missile ever grazing so much as a Pentagon radar’s anxieties: North Korea is a nation where even ants starve and technology runs on the digestive clockwork of oxen. Its ability to fire off an ICBM that could do more than kill a few hapless fish in the Sea of Japan is somewhere between one-in-a-million and the Hubble Deep Field (though its ability to turn patches of South Korea into a deep field of its own is less in doubt). But if Bush could turn al-Qaeda’s posse of spectacular fanatics and conventional imbeciles into a threat on par with Nazi Germany, and if his administration could turn Saddam into the greatest evil since Stalin, then surely his Cheney-trained handmaids can spin a tale of North Korean missiles threatening everything from the Golden Gate to Aunt Bethel’s collection of souvenir spoons in Miami Beach. And if they can do that, as they have, then North Korea can be a running advocacy campaign for Bush’s version of Star Wars—his “missile defense” initiative currently devouring $10 billion a year to go with the $150 billion spent on the blanched elephant since Ronald Reagan concocted it in March 1983. Sure enough, on Friday Bush was all engorged for his missiles: “It’s been three days since North Korea fired those missiles,” a reporter asked him in Chicago. “Yesterday you said you did not know the trajectory of the long-range missile. Can you now tell us where was it was headed? And if it were headed? And if it were headed—if it had been headed at the United States, how would our national ballistic missile system have taken it down?”

Bush’s response was at first jocular, because he’s a great kidder, because ICBMs are a hoot, and because, gosh darn it, people like him that way. Read the rest...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Kipling on the Loose: Thomas Friedman's Toxic Tourism

LIMA, Peru—The best part of this job is being able to step outside of your routine and occasionally look at the world through a completely different lens. The Peruvian Amazon rain forest is such a lens, and looking at the world through this dense jungle has given me new perspectives on two issues — Middle East violence and the spread of the Internet.
—The first lines of Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column, July 5, 2006

From the doorway of La Crónica Santiago looks at the Avenida Tacna without love: cars, uneven and faded buildings, the gaudy skeletons of posters floating in the mist, the gray midday. At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?
—The first lines of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral (1974).

One quote appears to have nothing to do with the other. But neither do Friedman’s juxtapositions, or his quests for the soppy metaphor. You’d think the New York subway would be as good a place as any, jungle-wise, to “look at the world through a completely different lens.” There’s a subway stop half a block away from Friedman’s office. Timesmen who work on the building’s eleventh floor must think the underground peruvia non grata. So the juxtaposition begs the question: at what precise moment did Thomas Friedman go Peruvian on his own Amazon rear? Answer: January 1, 1995, the day he published his first “Foreign Affairs” column for the Times and heralded the age of imperialism with a liberal face. Or Rudyard Kipling minus the poetry, the style, the occasional substance, the ear for irony.

So we get sentences like today’s: “What is so striking about the rain forest, when viewed up close, is what an incredibly violent place it is—with trees, plants and vines all struggling with each other for sunlight, and animals, insects and birds doing the same for food.” Funny. I could say the same about the copse of woods in back of my Floridian house, or stage where two or more lobbyists compete for a legislator’s price. Seen up close of course the last thing any of this is is violent. It’s placid, well-mannered, immobile. It takes perspective, a bit of analysis, seeing the forest for the trees sort of thing—doing what Friedman seems incapable of—to reflect the ecosystem’s violence. It takes abandoning the very preconceptions and presumptions going to a place like the Peruvian jungle was meant to do. So he goes from vines and jungle animals competing “with an identifiable purpose” to describing the violence between Israelis and Palestinians as “utterly without purpose.” Read the rest...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Burning Emotions: The Real Threats to the Flag

As the U.S. Senate contributed mightily to global warming while debating a constitutional amendment to ban flag-desecration last week, the Citizens Flag Alliance (“representing 147 organizations and over 20 million members”) made this startling announcement: Flag-desecration incidents are up 33 percent this year. That is, there’s been four incidents reported so far this year, compared with three by June last year.

And those four incidents? Early the morning of June 22 on a residential Brooklyn street, louts thought to be teens just out of school set on fire a few flags in people’s yards. Two weeks earlier, a drunken man in West Haven, Conn., desecrated a flag while chugging beer and taunting passers-by on a bike path. On May 30, vandals stole a flag from a VFW Post in Mineville, N.Y., and burned it. And on May 13 in a small New Hampshire town, 13 flags hanging from a VFW building were sliced into ribbons. Each of these, except the drunker man’s desecration (he could be prosecuted for drinking beer in public, but not messing with a flag) are misdemeanors punishable by perfectly acceptable laws: You can’t go around destroying other people’s yard property, whether it’s a flag or a pink flamingo. But are three instances of stupid vandalism and one drunken hic-up a crisis warranting the mobilization of the U.S. Senate and the push for the first constitutional amendment in 14 years? Read the rest...

Monday, July 03, 2006

High on Crack: Put the Space Shuttle Out of Its Misery

We forget how safety concerns plagued the space shuttle even before it took its first flight in 1981. From a New York Times story on January 24, 1981: “The astronauts who are to fly the first orbital test mission of the space shuttle Columbia said here today that they had confidence that the new space plane was flightworthy, despite its years of development problems, and that they would be ‘140 percent trained’ by the launching day.” They were preparing to launch aboard Columbia. Of course they could be trained 10,000 percent: It wouldn’t make a difference to a one-pound piece of foam that could come undone and knock a hole in the shuttle’s fuselage, as one did, pulverizing Columbia on re-entry on its twenty-eighth flight and killing its 140-percent-trained crew. Just its twenty-eighth flight. Challenger exploded on its tenth. They’re prepping Discovery, the workhorse of the bunch, for its thirty-second flight, another one of those “return to space” crapshoots, this one on July 4. (Atlantis has had twenty-six flights, Endeavor is still a teen with nineteen).

NASA puts odds of a big accident at 1-in-100, which is, of course, sheer bull: there’s been one hundred and fourteen flights, two of which have ended in disaster. That puts the odds of a disaster at 1-in-50, but they’re actually much lower than that when you look at the flimsy things shuttle by shuttle. NASA is all but begging for a disaster with Discovery, a rickety mass of fixer-uppers that should have gone up last week but has been delayed, day after day, allegedly by weather and now more honestly, maybe, by new discoveries of cracks in the ship’s insulation foam. Read the rest...

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Patriotic Gore: Can't Win the War? Bomb the Press!

Frank Rich, The New York Times / July 2, 2006

"OLD GLORY lost today," Bill Frist declaimed last week when his second attempt to rewrite the Constitution in a single month went the way of his happy prognosis for Terri Schiavo. Of course it isn't Old Glory that lost when the flag-burning amendment flamed out. The flag always survives the politicians who wrap themselves in it. What really provoked Mr. Frist's crocodile tears was the foiling of yet another ruse to distract Americans from the wreckage in Iraq. He and his party, eager to change the subject in an election year, just can't let go of their scapegoat strategy. It's illegal Hispanic immigrants, gay couples seeking marital rights, cut-and-run Democrats and rampaging flag burners who have betrayed America's values, not those who bungled a war.
No sooner were the flag burners hustled offstage than a new traitor was unveiled for the Fourth: the press. Public enemy No. 1 is The New York Times, which was accused of a "disgraceful" compromise of national security (by President Bush) and treason (by Representative Peter King of New York and the Coulter amen chorus). The Times's offense was to publish a front-page article about a comprehensive American effort to track terrorists with the aid of a Belgian consortium, Swift, which serves as a clearinghouse for some 7,800 financial institutions in 200 countries.
It was a solid piece of journalism. But if you want to learn the truly dirty secrets of how our government prosecutes this war, the story of how it vilified The Times is more damning than anything in the article that caused the uproar. Read the rest...