Monday, September 29, 2008

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Betrayal – Imagine this: a 10- or 11-year-old American boy in the mid-1950’s, as steeped in the American myth as any innocent child could be, absolutely knew his country would encourage and support the self-determination of every oppressed people on Earth. The United States, after all, is the beacon of free thought and free will throughout the world. And, if necessary, we will fight to free other enslaved people from tyranny and oppression. That child’s credo was not “My country, right or wrong;” the United States never did, after all, any wrong.

Then, the Hungarian Revolution happened. In October 1956, Hungary, a country occupied by the Soviet Union since the end of World War II, managed, miraculously, to overthrow its oppressors, and forced the Russians to exit the country for three glorious days. On the fourth day, though, tanks rumbled back into Budapest, the revolution was crushed, and its leaders ultimately hanged.

The boy was crushed, too. President Eisenhower, who previously asserted that America would ‘liberate’ countries behind the Iron Curtain, and support any democratic movements in these countries, did nothing. No troops, no aid whatsoever to the brave souls over there.

That boy was the young Mr. Gripes. I recall my emotions as if these events happened last week: my enormous devastation and disappointment when I realized, for the first time, that I was misled by my government. Eisenhower had no intention ever of helping the Hungarians – he was lying. That was a watershed event in my political education.

Mr. Gripes was reminded of the 1956 event just recently on the occasion of the Russian invasion of the sovereign state of Georgia:

George Bush (2005): “The path of freedom you (Georgian citizens) have chosen will not be easy. As you build a free and democratic Georgia, the people of America will stand with you.”

Mr. Bush pronounced this wholehearted support repeatedly as the Georgian and Russian political conflict heated up.. So, what happens? Georgia’s invaded, and America sits on its hands, and does nothing, just like in 1956. Oh, there were many blustering statements afterwards-- Dick Cheney, for one, asserts, “Russia’s actions will not go unanswered.” What a crock of bullcrap.

Mr. Gripes, at his advanced age, now understands that the United States of course cannot support democratic movements in countries all over the globe. Our foreign policy must have only one mission: protect the security of the United States. And supporting some tiny republic against a giant world power like Russia does not serve our interests one bit, I’m afraid.

Politicians huffing and puffing about poor Georgia probably believe that there’s no domestic-election downside to bluster. But, despite the temptation, buffoons such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, Douglas Firth, Richard Perle, and the rest of the neo-conservatives who dwell in some kind of ‘good-guys vs. bad-guys’ universe, should keep their big mouths shut. Cheerleading for democratic movements in oppressed nations, if you’re not going to back them up, is not only dishonest, it’s a betrayal. Funny how these gentlemen always talk about upholding the ‘honor’ of America; nothing is more dishonorable than exhorting citizens yearning for freedom, and then abandoning them. And, to the rest of the world, the image of America is of an empty fortress, a paper tiger, not likely to fulfill its commitments.

Abbreviations -- Mr. Gripes surmises that he’s one of about 23 people left on the planet who give a damn about the trashing of the English language these days. Here’s the latest abomination: the insistence by sportswriters and announcers to abbreviate athletes’ names: K-Rod, I-Rod, A-Rod, J-Kidd, KG (Kevin Garnett), K-Mart, J-Mart, MJ, VC (Vince Carter), and on and on. It’s another case of the ‘Dumb and Dumber’ phenomenon eviscerating our culture. The cause is obvious: computers and speed are intertwined, so truncation of language for computer terminology is a primary concern; text messaging hasn’t helped either. Subsequently, this blasphemy has permeated into conversational and written English; the enunciation of full names as a matter of conveying correct, exact information is simply disappearing. Writers and sportscasters, for whom language is the basic component of their professions, ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Scams – Mr. Gripes, for all his stentorian bravado, can be a gullible sort. Ergo, he’s always on the lookout for bold, imaginative and nasty scams. J.D. Powers & Associates is a beauty. You may have heard of this outfit; they’re in the worthless awards business. The company seeks out an industry, and creates ‘awards’ for many, many types of insignificant achievements. The scam is this: we’ll create a #1 ranking for something your product possesses, and, if you pay us, we’ll give you the right to use it in marketing endeavors. The hapless American automobile industry, as one could guess, took to this like a bear to honey. J.D. Powers creates category after category, and every car manufacturer ‘wins’ an award. Leather upholstery? Sound system? Back seat comfort? Most luxurious arm rests? Prettiest gas cap? You name it, good, old J.D. has an award. And, virtually every American car company has taken the bait, purchasing those #1 awards. (The Japanese and Koreans, I suspect, were not conned.) An absolutely gorgeous scam. Instead of pursuing more assiduously an effective 50-mile-a-gallon internal combustion engine, car manufacturers opted to spend millions and millions on these worthless ‘medallions’. I’m reminded of the Latin American generalissimo whose chest is festooned with a thousand medals, each of dubious provenance; he’s a figure of ridicule to everyone except, perhaps, his mistress.

Change? John McCain, of all people, is talking up ‘change’. Astounding. Mr. Gripes recalls Joseph Goebbels and the ‘Big Lie’ -- Say it again and again, and people will start to believe it. But, I’ll cease with the diatribe. You want proof that Mr. McCain is wedded to the past? Lately he’s been getting foreign-affairs advice from none other than the one surviving Brontosaurus of the Paleolithic era, Henry Kissinger. When Russia invaded Georgia last month, Mr. Kissinger jumped for joy: ‘Yippee. At last, at last. Someone surely will give me a call; the glorious Cold War is back.’

Oratory --The proposition that every succeeding generation learns from and improves on earlier generations has taken a big hit recently when it comes to political oratory. In April 1865, Abraham Lincoln spoke on a battlefield still reeking of death about “a government of the people, for the people, and by the people”; on December 8, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt, with those fabulous ‘pipes’ of his, asserted “yesterday will be a date that will live in infamy.” And, on September 3, 2008, Sarah Palin exclaimed, “Do you know what’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bill: Lipstick!” Good God. To what depths is this country plunging?

Capital Gains – I read recently of some investment firms on Wall Street pulling off another ‘let’s-pay-no-taxes’ scam by taking outright dividend earnings, with capital-gains consequences, and, then, overseas, away from prying eyes, creating financial instruments that did not resemble dividends. Consequently, their well-heeled clients did not pay taxes on their stock dividends. This is tax evasion, a very serious felony. Will the perpetrators of this money-laundering scheme go to jail? Not a chance. It’s ironic and tragic that these tax cheats are always the loudest, screaming for more tax relief and less regulation. America can no longer afford the laissez-faire, free-market, ‘ride-‘em-cowboy’ climate that’s reigned for the past 8 years. There’re just too many smart white-collar thieves out there cooking up schemes like this.

Baby Strollers --Notice lately how enormous baby strollers on the streets have become? It’s out of control. With a width approaching the wing span of pterodactyls, and huge wheels that would not look out of place at any ‘Big Rig’ competition, these behemoths, in size and heft, resemble a 1963 Lincoln Continental. Mr. Gripes knows what’s going on: a distinctly urban species, these parents, which as a pair earn sums rivaling the royals at the court of Louis XIV, are, as usual, grimly competing with friends and associates: ‘my carriage, with its perfect and precious cargo who’s headed straight to Princeton, is bigger and better than your puny, old-fashioned hunk of junk.’ And, you, dear reader, can well imagine who’s doing all the heavy lifting: it’s not that Bulgarian weightlifter-husband, not quite in the mood to deal with screaming offspring and who opts to remain in the city knocking back Coronas at happy-hour joints; it’s the exhausted, 91-pound pixy wife, possessing the muscle mass of Peter Pan, who must lug the 60-pound carriage and baby up the three-floor walk-up..

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mr. Gripes Looking Askance at...

The Olympics – There’s nothing like the Olympics to warm the cockles of Mr. Gripes’ cynical heart. The ‘Games’ supply so much material. The abyss between stated ideals and reality is unparalleled in human affairs. Hypocrisy, excessive jingoism, superheated commentary, maudlin appeals to heart strings – they’re all there. So, let’s get started:

● Michael Phelps, Michael Phelps, Michael Phelps: can we simmer down the gaseous hyperbole just a little? He’s not, despite NBC’s extraordinary efforts to paint him so, a composite of Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Jonas Salk, and Albert Einstein. He swims laps, for God’s sake. The silver-tongued Matt Lauer of NBC asserts one morning, “All eyes around the world are focused on Michael Phelps at this moment.” Oh, really? This pronouncement occurred not two minutes after the morning-show newscast described the horrific killing and destruction going on in Georgia following the Russian invasion. Those poor people, I’m afraid, couldn’t care less about the illustrious Phelps, and, oh-my-God, probably never heard of him. Shame on you, Mr. Lauer. It appears the fever pitch of American jingoism is even worse in 2008 than in the games of 2004 and 2006, and those were outrageous enough. Last week, for instance, I saw on NBC a musical montage of approximately 30 photographs of competitive events. Only Americans appeared in every one of the pictures; there were zero images of any other country’s athletes. We’re an infantile, narcissistic nation, just too preoccupied with ourselves.
● In prime time, the only competitions we are permitted to see at length are events Americans have a shot at medals. Nothing else matters. That’s why viewers have been bombarded with hours and hours of swimming. Mr. Gripes got seasick watching. I swim laps on occasion, and ‘boring’ is the operative word. Looking at other people do laps ratchets up the tedium factor by a factor of 1,000. How about two-women beach volleyball? Let’s be honest: beautiful women in bikinis and gold medals are the ‘hooks’. The sport belongs on Venice Beach, not in the Olympics; it’s just too insignificant to devote about 100 hours of broadcast. Another ridiculous competition: two-men synchronized diving. Mr. Gripes would like to issue an edict: no males may participate in anything that is ‘synchronized.’ Females built along the beautiful, soft, supple lines of Esther Williams do ‘synchronized’ stuff. Not men. Males are all about muscle mass and strength, and smashing into each other. Rugby or a 94-mile-an-hour fastball buzzed 3 inches under the chin works. Diving into the pool with the grace of a swan does not; that ought to be a woman’s domain. Big guy, go over to the Bird’s Nest and throw a shot put, will you?
● One of the Olympic tenets and ideals constantly emphasized by its organizing committee is an insistence on ‘fairness.’ All countries shall come together for a fortnight of fair and equal athletic competition. Horse-bleep. Just like in the dog-eat-dog world out there, the ‘haves’ have overwhelming advantages over the ‘have-nots.’ Once more, Mr. Gripes casts his jaundiced eyes upon swimming. Nike and Reebok supply American swimmers, and other rich countries, with supersonic, aerodynamically superior swim suits. Poorer nations cannot afford them, and do without. That’s a distinct advantage; in fact, I’d call the suits ‘performance-enhancing.’ Heard that term before? Sure you have. It refers to the drugs – HGH, amphetamines, steroids – that baseball and football players are excoriated for using, to gain an advantage. Funny how that works. If it’s discovered a ballplayer uses drugs, he’s essentially deemed a leper by sportswriters and fans, who bitch and moan about a ‘level playing field’; if American swimmers wear swim suits that increase speed, to the obvious detriment of most opponents, they’re potential gold-medal winners and are deemed heroes. Mr. Gripes has a suggestion: the athletic apparel companies donate at no cost suits to the Olympian swimmers of ALL countries. It’d be great advertising and publicity, for one thing. But it will never happen. Those companies would immediately be branded as ‘traitors’ by the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and all the other right-wing blabbermouths. We’re not interested in fairness, only winning.

Nice Guy-ism – “He’s a nice guy.” For most American males, this is one of the highest accolades that can be bestowed on someone. Our garrulousness and bonhomie are characteristics every other nationality in the world recognizes in the American character. We almost demand these traits of each other. Mr. Gripes once again demurs: in fact, the insistence on everyone being a “nice guy” has damaged us. Americans are very good at delusion – that is, seeing the world not as it is, but as we’d like it to be. Lately, as we all know, it’s killed us.
Let’s look at the George Bush experience. George Bush ran against Albert Gore in 2000. He did not run on a record of experience, intelligence or superior judgment. His campaign instead emphasized that Mr. Bush was a man “who you could sit down and have a beer with.” [Mr. Bush is a teetotaler, mind you.] He was a man quick with a joke, a slap on the back, just an amiable chap all-around. In contrast, Al Gore was a serious, seemingly humorless, academic sourpuss. That’s how the race was framed [and the Kerry race four years later as well]. Voters could feel comfortable with George Bush; he seemed to be a nice guy. [His father went even further perpetuating the myth that he was a regular sort; his staff put out a statement that he loved pork rinds – Sure, King George the Elder: you were raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, your father was a U.S. Senator, and your grandfather founded a Wall Street investment house; you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee blueblood. Be honest: you’d rather eat bird seed than bite into a pork rind.] And, Americans were duped into electing an individual of very meager achievement, but who was a “regular guy.”
Mr. Gripes will let you in on a secret: any successful politician by definition is not a nice guy. An individual with that kind of overweening ambition, will and drive performs virtually anything to ascend and remain at the top. As the foul-mouthed and always-nasty New York Giant baseball manager Leo Durocher exclaimed, “Nice guys finish last.” George W. Bush has jettisoned close friends and associates to protect himself; that’s for certain. He’s no different than other Presidents. It was said that Franklin Roosevelt, the master politician of them all, did not have any friends, only interests; a close acquaintance might say the wrong word, and he’d be cut out of Roosevelt’s life permanently. The Clintons, who always profess to have dear friends, would regularly cast out lifelong friends if it was in their interests. That’s just the way it is. Mr. Bush is cut from the same cloth. Politicians of a certain ranking are just not pleasant people.
Let’s take a look at how effective this ‘nice-guy’ method of negotiations operates on the world stage: George Bush, very early in his first term, met with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, at essentially a ‘get-acquainted’ summit. Mr. Bush, who I would imagine has always used his charm to get by, declared after the meeting, “I looked the man in the eye. I got a sense of his soul.” He considered Mr. Putin a “friend.” Mr. Putin, a wily ex-KGB agent, played Mr. Bush for a fool. If the KGB taught him nothing else, they drilled into Putin the need to conceal; don’t let your opponent know you. George Bush, a hail-merry-well-met sort, thought he had initiated a friendly, personable relationship with Mr. Putin, and, like a tail-wagging Labrador, trusted Putin explicitly. Mr. Bush was under the impression that a smile and kind words reciprocated by the Russian leader would erase decades of near-bellicose competition between the two countries. It didn’t happen: the Russian invasion into Georgia seven years later is proof. The President, with his emphasis on cracking jokes and yukking it up, demonstrated he’d be no chess master; Mr. Putin, on the other hand, was thinking ten moves ahead and thoroughly outmaneuvered our leader. Bruising geopolitical factors determine nations’ relationships; asking about the kids and a kiss on both cheeks do not.

Whether they’re for or against, readers’ comments are always welcome.