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Faster, Please!

Monthly Archives: June 2012

Actually the headline is  intentionally misleading.  I don’t believe soccer has meaning, and certainly not “deep” meaning.  But, as an avid fan (you cannot have spent nearly fifty years in and around Italy, as I have, without getting, ahem, deeply involved in the minutiae of the game and its players), and a cultural historian, I’m greatly amused by the many pundits who analyze soccer in terms of national character, or national culture, or something.  Most of the time, they not only fail to understand soccer, but embarrassingly expose their ignorance of culture and character as well.

Italy and Germany are great examples.  Most folks expected Germany to win the semifinal game that the Italians won 2-1 (and were clearly better than the Germans).  Those who follow the sport knew that Germany had better talent, and believed that “Germans are tougher than Italians.”  They were right about talent, but wrong about toughness.

Whenever Italy plays Germany, the Italians expect to win and the Germans expect to lose.  And why not?  As Fox News’ Jamie Trecker noted before the match, “Germany have never beaten Italy in a game of this magnitude, either in a World Cup or in a European Championship. In fact, the last time they met in a knockout game, Italy ejected them from the very World Cup they were hosting.”

Does that surprise you?  If so, it’s probably because you don’t understand either Italians or Germans very well.  You probably think of them in terms of the usual stereotypes:  Italians are charming people who live life to the fullest, great for celebrating and eating, great at cooking and winemaking, beautiful to look at, gorgeous country, wonderful weather, but not very good at war or projects that require organizing people into coherent units, whether big industrial projects or sporting events.  Yes, lots of individual talent — so they’re good at Formula 1, for example — but you can push them around on battlefields or athletic fields.

It must be said that many Italians work hard to advance this stereotype.  It serves their interests to be thought of as lovable, non-threatening guys.  It encourages others to let down their guard.  But Italy has a very long tradition — perhaps the longest and richest unbroken tradition in the world — of political assassination.  And what country gave us the word “mafia” anyway?  Aren’t mafias famously disciplined organizations?  And would you say they are normally made up of charming, non-threatening guys?

If you would, you’d best head for the reeducation school in Corleone.

So at a minimum there’s a very tough subclass of Italians.  And it’s not limited to the criminals.  Italian politics may be superficially entertaining, but in reality it’s a blood sport, sometimes quite literally.  You may remember that Aldo Moro, the most powerful politician in the country, was kidnapped and assassinated.  You probably don’t remember the many judges, lawyers and others who were killed or kneecapped by the terrorists in the same decade.  I do, since when I was a professor at Rome U., one of my colleagues, who happened to be the chief justice of the Italian supreme court, was gunned down on campus.

Quite aside from such violence, there are many once-powerful politicians who have been destroyed by “scandal,” as often as not conjured out of the Roman air (notice that Berlusconi, who has never been convicted of anything, was recently exonerated of yet another charge (fraud)).

Tough guys, in short.  They have to be.  Italy’s a tough place, and survival, let alone success, requires real toughness.  That charm is a mask, as is much of the celebrated joie de vivre.  You won’t get past that mask without a lot of effort and plenty of time with them.  When I first got there, someone said that I should be slow in thinking I understood anything.  “It’s a ten-year course,” he said.  Actually I think it’s longer, at least it has been for me.  But I’ve learned a good deal about that charming mask and about the underlying toughness.  On the soccer field — to reprise our theme — they do not try to charm their opponents.  They try to take them apart.  If you watch Italy play soccer, watch their feet carefully, and you’ll see what they do to their opponents’ ankles.  Rather like the picadores in the bullring.

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The Vlady-Bibi Tapes

June 27th, 2012 - 8:16 pm

I dunno, maybe they should be called vladybibileaks, in keeping with current nomenclature, but whatever you call them, I’ve obtained a recording of (parts of) the conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.  They met in Jerusalem on Monday,  and the tapes arrived here late Tuesday night by courier.

PJ Media spares no expense, you know.

The recording is pretty good, but it seems the machinery stopped a few times, so the text is a bit disjointed.  Nonetheless I think it provides a useful insight into the real world, as opposed to the stuff we read about so often in the popular press.  The early part is just pleasant chit-chat, as Putin expresses satisfaction at being in Israel, nominally for a celebration of Red Army victories over Hitler’s army in the Second World War.  Whereupon they segue into the main topics of the day:

BIBI:  “We commemorate Nazi defeats here, you know.”

VLADY:  “Yes, but even so it’s rare for me to be invited to an event honoring the Soviet military.  Once upon a time, rulers in the Kremlin spent a lot of time flying around the satellite countries for such parties, but now nobody in those places honors our sacrifices.”

BIBI:  “Don’t get me started on ingratitude.  We Jews know all about that one!”

VLADY:  “Hah!  Well you are designated scapegoats, after all.  And it’s time for you to play your designated role once again.”

BIBI:  “It’s always time, and we don’t have to do anything;  they do it to us.”

VLADY:  “Of course.  But now you should do something to show them it’s a mistake to trifle with Jews.”

BIBI:  “You talking about Iran or Syria now?”

VLADY:  “Iran, of course.  You must leave Syria to us, as I told Mr. Obama.”

[missing section]

BIBI:  “Let me make sure I understand you correctly.  Are you saying you think we should go after your friends in Tehran?”

VLADY:  “Some friends!  You can’t imagine the problems with them.  After all I’ve done, we still can’t get our invoices paid in a reasonable amount of time.”

BIBI:  “Well maybe you shouldn’t have built that nuclear reactor, or arranged for them to get your antiaircraft missiles.”

VLADY:  “I didn’t sell them antiaircraft missiles.”

BIBI:  “You sold the missiles to Chavez in Venezuela, and he sent them to Iran, as you well know.  That was the deal, wasn’t it?”

VLADY:  “We gave you the jamming instructions for them, didn’t we? And the reactor still doesn’t work.”

BIBI:  “So why should we do anything about it?”

VLADY:  “Because it’s too dangerous to take chances with them.  They’re crazy, but they’re smart, too, and eventually they will figure it out.  We can’t have those crazy people with atomic bombs.  And you’re the first target, so what are you waiting for?”

BIBI:  “You know what?  That’s precisely what the Saudis say.  Word for word.  ‘What are you waiting for?’  Interesting that the atheists and the Wahabbis say the same thing, don’t you think?”

VLADY:  “It’s not a religious question,  you know.”

BIBI:  “Really?  Have you tested that theory on Supreme Leader Khamenei?”

VLADY:  “No.  His predecessor tried to convince one of my predecessors to convert to Islam, haha.”

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Cuisine and the Revolution

June 25th, 2012 - 7:39 pm

All hail Stephen Budiansky!  I had a happy weekend (Italy beat England, and will play Germany next, the power went off all over the neighborhood but our generator worked, and we had a terrific dinner party with a bunch of scintillating people who ate and drank enthusiastically) and on Sunday evening I sat down to read the book reviews in the Wall Street Journal, and found Mr. Budiansky beginning his devastating and enlightening commentary on four new books on food as follows:  “If you want to keep abreast of America’s evolving food obsession, there is no more reliable guide than the phrases that appear after the ominous word ‘preferably’ in the recipes printed in the New York Times.”

So I knew it was going to be good, but it just got better and better, and about halfway through I was laughing out loud, resisting the urge to give the man a standing o.  Budiansky knows that political correctness has gotten its canines into our cuisine, and he loathes it, as I do.

Digression:  many years ago James Schlesinger said, in my presence, “the decline of America began with the replacement of hamburgers and bourbon with quiche and chardonnay.”  End digression.

His writing is a pleasure, and he is so good at chopping, dicing, frying and simmering authors who have set his teeth on edge that I want to cheer.  “As a writer he has a far better eye than Ms Gustavson for quotes, color and human quirks, though he also has an irritating tendency toward business-consultant bromides…as well as what Strunk and White nailed a long time ago as ‘affecting a breezy manner.’”

It is clear from the four books under discussion that food has now been thoroughly politicized, which is a terrible thing, although on the bright side there is no doubt that the quality of food has improved a great deal since my childhood days, when fruit and veggies didn’t taste of anything (as the Italians say).  Like so many others who lived abroad–or even ate abroad–the discovery of the actual flavors of basic food was a turning point, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote a book about Naples, which has truly fabulous food.

In my world, there’s lots of great food, and on a given evening you can get a fabulous dinner with a French or Oriental or Spanish accent.  But for day in, day out, great cuisine, nothing matches Italian food, because the whole emphasis is on the ingredients rather than the herbs, sauces, or spices.  The Italian culinary enterprise is devoted to releasing the maximum wonderfulness of the ingredients.  And it works in large part because they strictly respect the seasons.  No winter strawberries!  No artichokes out of season!  You’ve got to wait for their season.  So when we’re there–happily quite a lot these days–we are often happy to act like vegetarians (which we aren’t;  not at all).  Our most recent trip was enlivened by porcini mushrooms, about which the trick is to make sure the little worms didn’t get there before you did.

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Back when Obama was dithering over “what to do about Mubarak,” I noted that it was an unpleasant decision, but that it was quite clear we should support the Egyptian dictator.  Quote:

we have to stick with Mubarak, all the way down if he is indeed going down.  We can talk about reform  as much as we wish, but it’s as crazy to try to institute reform in the middle of an insurrection as it is to raise taxes in the middle of a depression.  But we have to say — above all, privately — that we’re with him, and that while we want serious change in the future we will not abandon him.

That is the right policy, even if Mubarak goes down.  If we do that, we can say to his successors:  “We were loyal to him because he was a good ally, and we do not abandon loyal allies.  If you are good allies, we will be loyal to you too, even at your darkest hour.”

If we bail, then both our other allies and Mubarak’s successors will know that America is not loyal, cannot be relied upon, and thus that it is a mistake to cater to the Americans’ wishes (about democracy, for example).

So, as history unfolds through paradoxes, we have identified another one:  if you really want to advance democracy, it will sometimes be necessary to stand foursquare behind a dictator.

If we had pursued our national mission for the past many decades, we might have avoided the necessity of doing this unpleasant thing.  But here we are.  If we jump ship now, as it seems we are, it is odds-on to make things worse.

So we jumped and things got worse.  Now what’s all this talk about all the neocons being wrong?  Or have I been thrown out of yet another oversimplified generalization?

Meanwhile, reread the whole thing.  The “Problem of the Friendly Tyrant” is one of the basic issues facing American presidents, and it’s a good idea to think it through.  This is one of those teaching moments, as Rush likes to say…

Let’s begin with the mission statement of PJ Media: Roger is always right. In the present case, he’s right to say the president is a liar. Which of course we all knew, we just didn’t know that he lied about his own life dozens of times in his so-called “memoir.”  Now we know that.  Thirty-eight times, at least.

But that’s only a good start, it’s only the beginning of the story. It’s not the end of the story, not by any means. After all, not even this president is perfect, and he often tells the truth. The problem is, how do you tell? It’s not like the old gag question, “how do you tell when he’s lying?” To which the ritual answer, “when his lips move,” isn’t right.  Sometimes the moving lips form truthful words.

Roger is very upset to have a president who lies, but those of us who live in Washington, D.C., are accustomed to lying presidents (indeed, we probably wouldn’t know what to do with a president who always told the truth), and we tend to take it for granted that every statement by every public official must be subjected to Ronald Reagan’s orders: trust, but verify. The American system can cope with a lot, provided that those in the four branches of government (the fourth branch being the media) follow orders and relentlessly track down the truth.

One of our many problems at the moment is that too many folks are failing to follow orders.

It’s more than a little amusing to me that there is a great hullabaloo in the Force right now over Obama’s many false statements about his own life, but virtually no reaction to the so-called “leaks” about his behavior as president, crucial elements of which are almost certainly false. To review the bidding:

  • We are told that President Obama, frustrated at the slow pace of the cyber war against Iran, turned to his buddy Benjamin Netanyahu to make things work right.  I find that unbelievable.  He doesn’t like Netanyahu, doesn’t want to work closely with him, doesn’t even visit Israel.  Ergo, that part of the story is false.  (I do believe that Israel and the United States–and probably others as well–worked and still work together to sabotage Iran, I just don’t think that the president, between shouts of “faster, please!” asked his secretary to get good old Bibi on the line to speed things up).
  • We are told that President Obama personally approves the hit list for our hellfire missiles in the Middle East. I find that unbelievable as well, not least of all because such behavior would leave him liable to prosecution for war crimes, and, whatever else he is, he’s a lawyer.  He knows that.  Ergo, he’d have someone else take that risk.

It does not surprise or even alarm me to learn that politicians make false statements to journalists, thereby deceiving us. What does alarm me is the spectacular laziness on the part of so many journalists to check the statements they are fed. Thus, to go back to Roger’s theme, the important thing about the “true facts” about the president’s life is that they bring us closer to understanding who he really is. I care a lot about who Barack Obama really is, and one of the most distressing elements of life in America these days is how little we seem to know about this president.

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Leaks and Lies

June 10th, 2012 - 8:23 pm

I once had a long discussion about leaks with Richard Helms, a thoughtful gentleman who steadfastly refused to reveal state secrets even when threatened with imprisonment.  Helms was director of Central Intelligence for many years, and he told me that he had often been asked to identify the source(s) of leaks of sensitive information.  “We always found the leaker(s),” he said, “but then nothing happened.”  Why?  “Because most of the time the leaker was so high-ranking that there was no desire to prosecute or punish.”  He said that he’d identified the likes of cabinet secretaries in some of his investigations.

There are two invaluable lessons from Richard Helms’ reflections on leakers.  Lesson One:  If you want to know who leaked it, you will know.

Then add Lesson Two:  But you are not likely to be happy with the answer.

Then what?

You’ve got two basic options:  Option One:  you can quietly fold your investigative tent (“just let it die”), or you can prosecute or punish someone who made a mistake in the course of the investigation, even though he wasn’t the actual leaker (Option Two).  Two lessons, two options.

Take the “Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame” case.  In keeping with Helms’ Lesson One, it didn’t take long to discover that the leak had come from Richard Armitage, the powerful deputy secretary of state, who passed the information to Robert Novak.  In keeping with Option Two, nothing was done to Armitage.  Instead, Scooter Libby — who had made a false statement to investigators — was prosecuted, convicted, and punished.

The latest round of leaks seems a bit different from these texbook cases.  The leaks that traditionally make administrations angry are those clearly designed to challenge official policy.  Think the Pentagon Papers, for example, or the various CIA leaks during W’s years in office, aimed at discrediting the war.  But the two leaks of the moment — the one about Obama’s personal involvement in the “kill list” of targets for Hellfire missiles, and the one about an alleged U.S.-Israeli joint cyber attack against Iran’s nuclear program — seem designed to make administration policy, and especially President Obama himself, look good.

As Andy McCarthy reminds us, you don’t need an investigation to identify the sources for these stories, because the journalists have told us who they are, if not always by name, invariably by rank and serial number:

The Times tells you who its sources are. At the very beginning of the 6300-word kill-list epic, it says: “In interviews with The New York Times, three dozen of [Obama's] current and former advisers described Mr. Obama’s evolution since taking on the role, without precedent in presidential history, of personally overseeing the shadow war with Al Qaeda.” The account goes on to quote, for example, former White House chief-of-staff Bill Daley, who not only confirms the existence of a kill-list but describes the considerations behind adding names to it. Current and former national security officials are quoted, in many instances by name (e.g., national security adviser Thomas Donilon and former national intelligence director Dennis Blair). And when names are not given, the Times quotes, for example, “one participant” in the approximately weekly meetings — videoconferences run by the Pentagon but involving national security officials across the administration — who describes some of the criteria for adding or removing terrorists from the kill-list.

So it’s child’s play for a competent investigator to identify the dots in the picture.  Helms’ Lesson One applies bigtime.

Then what?

Well, then it gets more interesting.  The next logical question goes to the Oval Office.  “Here are the names of the leakers, Mr. President,” (as if he didn’t know) “what do you want to do about it?”

Is President Obama going to demand  punishment for those who told journalists stories that make him look determined to fight terrorism and take aggressive action against Iran’s nuclear project?  Not likely.  Indeed, the odds are quite substantial that he loves those leaks, and he may well have initiated them.

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June 6th, 2012 - 3:24 pm

A great writer, a great American.  I devoured his books, was never disappointed.  I think I started with Dark Carnival, and then…well, I can’t remember what came next.  I do have two memories of him, one direct, the other maybe something he wouldn’t have welcomed but would no doubt have given him a good laugh.

The direct memory was of a speech he gave to a big crowd of American businessmen in L.A., and he talked a lot about the power of imagination, and he urged them all to embrace their dreams, even the wildest ones, and to pursue them, because we’re in America and anything is possible.  After all, he’d spent years writing about Mars (both Mars as a metaphor and the “real” Mars), and then early one morning the first earth vessel was landing on Mars and he’d been invited to the Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena to watch the first pictures arrive.  He told us how excited he was, and how emotional everybody became when the first photos came in:  “They were wonderful pictures, and grown men were crying…”

And then a television journalist shoved a mic into his face and said, “Well, Bradbury, how does it feel?  All these years you’ve been dreaming about Mars and writing about Mars, and here are the first pictures from Mars, and there’s no sign of life anywhere.  So how does it feel?”

Bradbury yelled at us.  “I shouted at him.  I shouted “Fools!  Fools!  There IS life on Mars.  And it is US.”

It sent chills up my spine.  What a brilliant response it was.  If he’d had a month to write it, even he couldn’t have improved it.

The second story isn’t about Bradbury himself, but about Fahrenheit 451, the movie.  As you know, the story is about burning books and about those who salvage the documents of civilization from the burners, the “firemen” who build the book pyres and set them aflame.  Back in the seventies, a period when I worked in the Italian State Central Archives most every day, Italian TV’s Channel 1 put the movie on one night.  If you did research in the Archives, you were at the mercy of the schleppers, the men who went down into the basements to get your documents for you, and if they liked you, you got your documents.  If they didn’t like you–and they were not in a rush to decide if they did or didn’t–you got something, but not the full package.

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