Friday, August 31, 2012

David Foster Wallace's Vision of a Balanced Life

... and it's a beautifully simple one, rooted in everyday happiness.  Young writers should study this carefully:

What Balance Would Look Like

- 2-3 hours a day writing

- Daily exercise

- 2 nights/week spent with other friends


DFW's list for a balanced life continues on from there.

This is taken from D.T. Max's new biography of Wallace, available here.  I'll be reading and will report back this fall.

Read a review here.

The thing about History is that the darn thing never stays written...

Kitchen Tip: Cool Way to Separate Egg Yolk from White

Very much off-piste here, but fascinating idea from an obscure Chinese website, a new cool way to separate the egg yolk from the white.

I'm going to go make some garlic mayonnaise now.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dear CNN, Release the Footage, Identify the Peanut Thrower

At the Republican National Convention last night Ann Romney made a poised debut, Chris Christie speaking off the cuff threw his hat into the ring for 2016 and (after a while) had something nice to say about this year's candidate, and neither Sarah Palin nor a hurricane stormed the Tampa area; but the big story may have been the emergence of Mia Love, the Brooklyn-born mayor of a small Utah city who is contesting Utah's tough 4th congressional district against a six-term incumbent (and son of the former governor) Jim Matheson.

Or those were the stories until they were superseded by disturbing reports surfacing in Talking Points Memo that one attendee to the convention allegedly threw a handful of nuts at a CNN camera woman and declared "This is how we feed the animals."  Given that the camerawoman was black the incident, if as reported, has nasty and offensive racial overtones.  Since then, this incident has been topic #1 in media circles. (Update, yesterday the story was trending at #1 for yahoo.)

According to Talking Points Memo's Kyle Leighton, who following a tweet from @DavidShuster, broke the story, a CNN official has actually somewhat (but only somewhat) confirmed his account.  Leighton elaborates:

The CNN official declined to confirm specific details of the incident to TPM but generally confirmed an account posted on Twitter by former MSNBC and Current anchor David Shuster: “GOP attendee ejected for throwing nuts at African American CNN camera woman + saying ‘This is how we feed animals.’”  In a written statement, CNN addressed the matter: “CNN can confirm there was an incident directed at an employee inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum. CNN worked with convention officials to address this matter and will have no further comment.”
To clarify, then, this story originated with a reporter for Al Gore's Current TV, a reporter in fact who was recruited to the network by Keith Olbermann.  So far, no first-hand eyewitness has spoken on the record.

I see now that Leighton's account has also been picked up this morning by the Times of London, so it is officially now A Major International Story.  Why is CNN confirming the general outline of this offensive act that has attracted so much attention and then working in concert with the RNC to cover up the details and prevent further examination of it?  Why did they let themselves be scooped by other news organizations?  More importantly, given the occasion and the setting, who in the world would ever do something as racist, irresponsible, and offensive as that?  And why would they throw peanuts... something associated with elephants, the mascot of the Republican Party?  Leighton, in his post, holds out the possibility that the perpetrator may have been a Republican delegate.  Others have suggested it could be a Ron Paul ally bent on spoiling the party, or simply a drunken hanger on.  But heck who knows?  They could be associates of Obama campaign manager David Axelrod, on a false flag / dirty tricks mission.

Well, it should be very, very easy to find out.  The victim of the alleged attack was, after all, a camera woman, with her camera running.  The convention center was filled with members of the electronic media, and in these times every man and woman is a citizen journalist, with a video camera in their pocket.

I hereby call on CNN to bring forth the footage of this incident immediately.  Given the prominence this story has now taken on, the peanut thrower should be identified, and the facts made known. Without rush to judgement, if the account from Kyle Leighton and CNN is true, the perpetrator should be named and shamed.  Furthermore, it should be very instructive to the world how the organization responsible for him, presumably the RNC, though we can't be sure, deals with someone committing such an act.

CNN, release the tape!

The Talking Points Memo story here.

David Shuster's twitter feed here, and his Take Action News / "We Have Your Government Surrounded"  web-site [yes, that really is its name] here.

A CNN follow up here.

Oh, and the big story of the day, buried now... Mayor Mia Love's RNC convention speech here.  MSNBC declined to broadcast her speech, choosing instead to go with Chris Mathews offering his opinions, but three months earlier they helped Love vault on to the stage with a compelling five minute profile by Craig Melvin, well worth watching here.

Further commentary via Zombia from PJM here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

On Handling the Koran... and mishandling justice.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the US military is disciplining troops over an incident that provoked outrage in Afghanistan early this year, the burning of some copies of the Koran.  In the wake of that incident some thirty people were killed during riots in Afghanistan.

It's unclear to me that US soldiers serving in Afghanistan need to abide by Islamic law while there; but if, according to US military guidelines, that is the case, so be it.  Unfortunately, there may be some misunderstanding on the part of the US military, as well as those Afghans who rampaged, about the pertinent point of sharia law.

When the incident first happened I decided to ask the opinion of a friend who is a member of one of London's leading chambers of barristers, is one of Europe's leading experts on sharia law, and is a descendent of a Sufi saint... Sadakat Kadri, author of the best-selling Heaven on Earth: a Journey Through Sharia Law.

Kadri responded to me via email that the prescribed method for disposing of a Koran that can no longer be used is to burn it. 

Let me re-state that, adding my own emphasis:   

The prescribed method for disposing of a Koran that can no longer be used is to burn it. 

Why, then, were the US soldiers who disposed of those books under threat of a serious prosecution, and why are they being disciplined now?

First, of all, as a writer I believe all books should be treated with respect.  Further, one should, of course, make a distinction here between burning as an act of disrespect and burning to end the existence of a copy that, for whatever reason, can no longer be used.  Americans should easily be able to understand the distinction between the burning of a flag in protest or anger and the burning of a flag that is already damaged and can no longer be displayed.  In the later case, that is, indeed, the prescribed way for handling an official flag, or a flag of a certain size if it has been damaged, soiled or even touched the ground.

The copies of the Koran in question were apparently altered, or marked up, by Afghan prisoners in order to pass messages amongst themselves.  As such, the books were unusable.  The question remains whether the prisoners who marked up those books and made them unusable should be disciplined under Islamic law... but that seems a question we ourselves should turn away from.

In any case, as I've said, given the above, it seems very odd that these soldiers should be disciplined at all.

The Christian Science Monitor report, which improperly conflates the above incident with another incident in Afghanistan, may be read here.

My earlier posts on this topic can be found here and here.

Kadri's fascinating book on sharia, Heaven on Earth: a Journey Through Sharia Law, may be found here.

The Blu-ray edition of Bruce Beresford's classic film Breaker Morant can be found via here.

And more on the topic of etiquette around these matters by Lee Smith, from some years ago in Slate, here.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Syria, an Arab Fall... and a Threat from Iran's Supreme Leader


Almost a year ago pundits noted how the Arab Spring of democratic uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East was fast turning into an Arab Winter... a winter of discontent and dashed hopes.  Yet, soon ahead, we have an Arab Fall, that of the Assad regime in Syria.  Not "a fall" in the sense of a season, of course, but rather a tripping up and an ending.

Syria has at times presented itself as all things to all people: a police state that has for the last five years marketed itself with astonishing success as a tourist destination for bien pensant westerners; a seemingly cohesive, multi-faith society that "held together" (or so Anna Wintour's Vogue told us) but did so via unimaginably brutal repression; Iran's closest ally and yet (some have suggested) a one-time covert ally of the US; a sponsor of terror and yet also at times a supposed ally in the War on Terror.

Soon it may all be different.  Whereas thirty years ago Hafez al Assad put down an uprising in Hama, slaughtering more than 20,000 of its citizens, including women and children, his son Bashar, whose forces have already killed that number, will not be able to contain or defeat the current uprising led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).  A coalition of the West (including France, Britain and the US), along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are now considering the imposition of a no-fly zone, which will protect the beleaguered population of Syria and also offer cover for FSA fighters.  In the meantime, there has been considerable equivocation about proceeding with such a motion without the moral authority of China and Russia, such as it is, in the form of UN Security Council backing.  Even without such a no-fly zone, the FSA will in time prevail, but at a cost: when guerrilla wars or civil wars are drawn out the most brutal elements within respective factions tend to rise to the top, with an attendant marginalization, or elimination, of those whose aims and skills are directed toward the creation of civil societies.  If the result of a drawn out civil war and long-delayed regime change is simply the replacement of one degraded, brutal society for another, no one will have won.

Yet another factor in international involvement in events in Syria will be the reaction of its neighbor and ally Iran, who themselves are already deeply involved in the country.  Iranian military advisers, and snipers from its Lebanese proxy militia Hezbollah, have been active for the past year in Syria.  (An aside: I continue to hope for a western peace movement to emerge exclaiming: "Stop the War!  Iran and Russia out of Syria now!" but so far no luck.  Similarly, in European and American cities, many of the same who decades ago marched demanding nuclear disarmament of the US and the UK, in order presumably to induce the Soviet Union to disarm, now counter: "Well, why shouldn't Iran have nuclear arms?").

There has, of course, been wrenching debate about how best to handle Iran's ambition for nuclear weapons.  However, in the short term, of much greater strategic importance for Iran is their maintenance of a reliable ally in Syria via the Assad regime, as well as (jointly with the Assads) with Hezbollah, who in their role as political actors are a prime mover, via the March 8 coalition, in the current government of Lebanon.

Keep all this in mind when reading Con Coughlin's scoop this week in the Telegraph:

According to Western intelligence officials, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave the order [to explore terror attacks] to the elite Quds Force unit following a recent emergency meeting of Iran's National Security Council in Tehran held to discuss a specially-commissioned report into the implications for Iran of the Assad regime's overthrow.

Damascus is Iran's most important regional ally, and the survival of the Assad regime is regarded as vital to sustaining the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militia which controls southern Lebanon.

The report, which was personally commissioned by Mr Khamenei, concluded that Iran's national interests were being threatened by a combination of the U.N. sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear programme and the West's continuing support for Syrian opposition groups attempting to overthrow the Syrian government.

Intelligence officials say the report concludes that Iran "cannot be passive" to the new threats posed to its national security, and warns that Western support for Syrian opposition groups was placing Iran's "resistance alliance" in jeopardy, and could seriously disrupt Iran's access to Hizbollah in Lebanon.

It advised that the Iranian regime should demonstrate to the West that there were "red lines" over what it would accept in Syria, and that a warning should be sent to "America, the Zionists, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others that they cannot act with impunity in Syria and elsewhere in the region."

Mr Khamenei responded by issuing a directive to Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force commander, to intensify attacks against the West and its allies around the world. 

Coughlin is a reliable journalist on these matters.  Khamenei, as best one can tell, and it's not entirely clear, is in fact the highest power in that country.  Does Iran have the capability to strike outside its region?  Unfortunately, yes, given that in the 1990s it carried out an assassination program in the heart of Europe against Iranian dissidents, as well as terror attacks against Jewish social organizations in Argentina and elsewhere.  What's more, and more to the point, last year the Iranian government was implicated in an assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the US to be carried out in Washington, DC. 

Will Iran strike against Western targets?  For a country that has generally operated in a careful and strategic way that would seem unlikely, unless circumstances were to change drastically.  As it happens, circumstances in the Middle East are in fact changing drastically right now and we have little idea precisely how matters will play out.  This is certain: that sooner or later, gradually or faster, the Assad regime, which has been Iran's sole reliable ally for the last few decades, will end.

What will Iran do?

In the meantime, we should ponder, when the Assad regime goes in Syria, what will take its place?

One would like to be hopeful and see a democratic country with structured power-sharing and rights secured for all minorities, including the Christian and Alawite communities likely be threatened by the fall of this regime.  (A model for this sort of structured power-sharing could be the Taif agreement of 1989 that ended the Lebanese Civil War.)  So far, the Syrian civil war has not been primarily a sectarian affair.  The FSA, though comprised of many fighters drawn from the disenfranchised Sunni communities, does encompass members from a variety of outlooks and backgrounds.  Many of the FSA leaders have a strikingly modern, technocratic, and secular outlook.  Late last week, however, the Syrian Army made a drive through Daraya, a predominantly Sunni suburb, reportedly slaughtering hundreds, including women and children.  Reports recount the army searching house to house and killing men of fighting age unable to produce papers.

The longer the conflict in Syria grinds on the more likely it becomes that the government will be a Sunni majority dominated affair, with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the gulf states, as well as to the Sunni community in Lebanon, a country to which Syria has long been intimately, sometimes smotheringly, connected.  (It is, of course, here worth noting that, in fact, Saudi Arabia played a relatively positive role in the supporting the pluralistic March 14th coalition that led Lebanon following the Cedar Revolution.)

A third possibility would be an extended civil war, extreme chaos, population movements and refugee crises, with a rump Alawite state forming in the northwest of the country... essentially a re-drawing the national boundaries delineated, for better or worse, in the Sykes-Picot agreement drawn up by Britain and France during WWI and refined in the 1920s.  (For a primer on those agreements and what preceded them... events "long ago, in distant lands" that are somehow much alive and with us... I recommend watching David Lean's magnificent film Lawrence of Arabia, and reading in conjunction with that David Fromkin's classic book of history A Peace to End All Peace.)  There are signs already of just such a rending of boundaries.  Syria's Kurdish community (2.5 million, or 10% of the country's population, and concentrated in the north) have played a canny waiting game, delaying their participation in the uprising against the Assad regime.  In the meantime, the Syrian army has withdrawn from that region, giving the Kurdish north of the country a de facto autonomy akin to that achieved by the Iraqi Kurds in 1991.  In doing so, the Assad regime has put pressure on neighboring Turkey, the leader of the coalition backing the FSA and who have their own restive independence-minded Kurdish population, as well as on neighboring Iraq, who have been struggling to keep their own oil-rich Kurdish region within a tight federal framework.  In essence, the Assad regime is holding out the threat of shattering the region and its long-delineated national boundaries.  It also may be suggesting what is its fall-back plan, of a "lesser Syria," with micro nation-states drawn along ethnic and confessional lines, including an Alawite redoubt in the northwest of the country to which the upper levels of the government and the army would retreat.

When History is moving forward, and people are dying, it is unwise to stand still at the cross-roads.  It is unconscionable as well.

Read Con Coughlin on Khamenei's statement HERE.

Study David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace, available HERE.

Watch David Lean's brilliant Lawrence of Arabia, available HERE, or via Apple itunes.

Hat tips to Now Lebanon, Lee Smith, and others, whose columns have been educational.

Remember that in a sense the Arab Spring began in Lebanon, with the Cedar revolution, in response to the 2005 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.  I was in Lebanon for the fourth anniversary of his death, and my interviews with Christopher Hitchens and others, conducted at a rally in Martyrs' Square, can be seen HERE.

The Vogue profile of Asma al Assad is no longer available via the Vogue or Conde Nast websites, but may be found at Bashar al Assad's official website.  (Link not provided, and if you think about visiting it be very careful about those cookies.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How About "Barry Lyndon" for Starters?

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, has put his foot in it.

He has said that Hollywood stars just can't "do" period drama.  Presumably he means American actors, as opposed to the many British and Australian actors who have become stars via films made by American studios and independent companies.

At a recent seminar he argued: "Our actors have an understanding of period--for Europeans the past is very much in them as well as the present.  Americans find it harder."

I'm not so sure.  I'd say Los Angeles-born Ryan O'Neal, then a neophyte and heartthrob, had little trouble carrying the 1975 movie Barry Lyndon, based on the novel by Thackeray, and made by the Bronx-born filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.  That picture may well be the greatest period adaptation of English literature ever made.  It is worth studying alone for Kubrick's ingenious fitting of vintage super-fast 50 mm projector lenses on to his cameras, allowing him to shoot on film using only available light.  When you watch (below) the scene, set in the evening, of players at a card table lit by candlelight consider that that set was lit only by those candles, giving the whole scene a resemblance to a painting by, say, Gainsborough, one of the masters of the era of the novel from which the film was adapted.

Chinatown was, of course, a period film, and Nicholson and Dunaway were superb in those roles, seemed natural, and were Oscar nominees for their performances.  The Godfather films were, of course, in period.  Marlon Brando won an Oscar in 1973 for originating the role of Vito Corleone.  Two years later, Robert De Niro, playing the young Vito Corleone in Sicily at the dawn of the twentieth century, won the Oscar for best supporting performance.  Friends who speak Italian better than I do, and who understand the Sicilian dialect in which De Niro delivered his lines, say he did well.  Apropos, his performance in Bertolucci's 1900 was superb, and his Italian, the only language spoken in that film, was well handled.

Perhaps Mr. Fellowes meant American actors are not very good in British period roles, and that may very well be so; but the same might be said of many British actors (excepting Daniel Day Lewis!) taking American roles in period films... though Fellowes, being British, might not be in the position to know this.  Whatever Mr. Fellowes did mean, the collaboration of British and American filmmakers has produced many fine films.  I am, however, growing concerned that since pulling off a superb Olympics presentation, and since winning all those gold medals (3rd place overall), the Brits may start to lose the self-deprecating style we all so admire.

In any case, Ryan O'Neal is pretty good in Barry Lyndon.  Watch at the beginning of the scene below for a funny subtext, where Lyndon's employer speaking to him (O'Neal) says: "Pretend that you speak not a word of English."  Is this a mischievous Kubrick joke meant to send up attitudes akin to Fellowes's?  Perhaps.  A bit later in the scene watch O'Neal pull off dialogue spoken in passable German:

Regarding Fellowes, and his thoughts on the matter, more here.

UPDATE: In response to the above I received a call from filmmaker John Irvin (director of Hamburger Hill, A Month in the Country, The Garden of Eden).  Irvin knew Kubrick and said that Kubrick chose to make Barry Lyndon and indeed his many other films in Britain because of the high quality of the film craftsmen, the editors, sound technicians, set builders, costumers, wig-makers, etc...  Just before ringing off he said, "But Gone with the Wind... the civil war... a period picture... wasn't that made by Americans?  Performances very good."  Too right, as some Brits might say.