Saturday, September 30, 2006

Ease your feet in the sea

One of the more difficult things about coming back from a relatively long vacation is the realisation that the world has remained as depressing and stupid a place as it was before you left.

Not, of course, that being on vacation usually means in any way being truly away from the world; however, if you do it right, it is possible to achieve a certain distance from current events and to let your mental horizon shrink to focus more-or-less exclusively on things such as buying fresh baguettes every morning, watching for the fishing boats to return with the high tide and walking along the sea while keeping an eye out for fossilised marine life.

Being cut off from the Internet, I discovered, is particularly vital in achieving that sort of holiday Zen, and, as I also found out, there is no place like provincial northern France - where Internet cafes are very few and very far between - for being forced into that position. This wouldn't have been so much of a problem, but I was pushed to seeking out some kind of public Web access at the start of our holiday because of work reasons. Mission accomplished, as it were, I then gave up on any further efforts to stay connected, not least because of the dismaying realisation that French keyboards are arranged significantly differently than English and German ones. Reduced to frustrated hunting and pecking (I never did manage to find the damned apostrophe), maintaining anything beyond a few necessary e-mail contacts was just too difficult to contemplate.

Thus, I think I spent less time online over the last three weeks than during any time over the past ten years.

Which, after overcoming the initial withdrawal symptoms, was all to the good in the end.

Through the miracle of satellite technology we had access to German television, which provided me with some kind of comprehensible window on the world. (My wife speaks fluent French, but while my French is now getting good enough for buying bread and ordering coffee - probably the two most important skills for a successful vacation - it's still too primitive for politics. I did, however, once manage spontaneously to blurt out in conversation "Non, je suis Americain, suis aussi contre Bush", which made me feel immensely pleased with myself. Savour the small victories in life, I say.)

Although it was great to be able to watch some worthwhile films and documentaries offered by Arte, maintain the required minimum intake of German crime dramas and keep up with my favourite soap opera, I once again realised how little you actually find out about the world through television. You get a general gist and some fleeting images, but anything more complex is, like the apostrophe on a French keyboard, hopelessly lost. You see Blair give a speech and grumpy Labour delegates at the end of their patience but no sense of how the real palace intrigues and backstabbing are in fact moving along. You see burning cars and blackened market squares in Iraq, as ever, but no indication of the extent to which the situation is improving or - as it seems is the case - worsening. You know that the Pope said something stupid, but you don't really find out just what it was.

So, not being able to follow anything with any depth whatsoever, I found myself ignoring it. Every once in a while, a vague sort of curiosity about what was going on outside of our immediate environment would drift through my mind, but it was easily enough banished, especially as the weather was unexpectedly cooperative, the wine was outstanding and the waters of the Channel very inviting indeed.

It was, moreover, a good opportunity for some reading of the more old fashioned sort (you know, the kind which doesn't involve a screen) and I thank Mme. Lessing and Messrs. Updike, Roth, Eagleton and Orwell for their hours of fine, thought-provoking company.

Now, I'm back and, slowly, I'm beginning to regain my faculties for relatively complex thinking (such as they are). Once again connected to the big, wide, dumb world, I'll get back to complaining about things soon enough.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

En Vacances

As of tomorrow, I'll be on holiday for a couple of weeks, so the quantity of new material will be greatly slowed. However, I do hope to be checking in now and then, and I may even inflict my planned cycle of 'Haikus from the Normandy Coast' on you.

There is also, of course, an enormous amount of insightful and carefully crafted prose in the archives. So, until my return, you might wish to amuse yourselves there.

Alternatively, you may just want to watch this instead:

Baker's Dozen

Well, I've never seen anything like that before...

Watching the German team dismantle San Marino 13-0 last night was hardly dramatic. But it was a lot of fun.

And, as we here at Obscene Desserts are great fans of the Franco-German special relationship, news of French revenge against Italy is also most welcome... Allez les Bleus!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Slaughtering cows to get butter: Continuing evidence that the right wing has lost its marbles

1. At Real Clear Politics, David Warren, who is also a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen, manfully wields his keyboard to attack the two recently released Fox News journalists Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig not only for cowardice but also for ‘doing the enemy’s work’. Warren apparently believes their willingness to make a videotaped ‘conversion’ to Islam while being held captive by Fatah symbolises all that is wrong with the weak-kneed, ‘chestless’ West.

While one should definitely take a sufficient pause to emphasise the disgusting gall it takes to heap scorn on these two captives from his safer base-camp in Ontario (ah, the bravery of being out of range), it’s worth noting that Warren is not alone in needing to project a (compensatory?) hypermasculine image through his prose. His macho typing seems to exemplify a certain trend amongst the Right’s growing ranks of armchair warriors. Glenn Greenwald, at Unclaimed Territory, explores this trend and nicely dismantles Warren’s arguments. As Greenwald argues:.
David Warren really is a poster child for so much of the forces driving our country to endless wars and reckless destruction. It's the same mindset that allows people who have never sacrificed or risked anything for their country to accuse those who have risked their lives of being cowards and appeasers (see Jack Murtha, John Kerry, Wesley Clark, and on and on and on).
Quite so.

Perhaps these guys would be better off simply buying a Hummer if they have, uh, masculinity issues to work out.

2. Right-wingnut Rush Limbaugh identifies rising rates of obesity as caused by…liberalism. There are a lot of bizarre things in Limbaugh’s statements, as ever. It's so difficult to keep up with them - and he's just turned into such a self-parodying joke that it's not really worth spending the time on it - but every once in a while something really special emerges from the nasty little swamp of his thinking. For example (via Crooks and Liars), he said the following, after some comments about UNICEF being a ‘scam’ to get people to love the UN:
UNICEF got it all started. We’ve seen the babies with the extended tummies, the walking skeletons, told that kids can’t learn unless they’re fed. We’ve been guilted into pouring resources on the problem. And now, now, the latest crisis is that there is obesity among those who are impoverished. Because we are sympathetic, we are compassionate people, we have responded by letting our government literally feed these people to the point of obesity. At least here in America, didn’t teach them how to fish, we gave them the fish. Didn’t teach them how to butcher a — slaughter a cow to get the butter, we gave them the butter. The real bloat here, as we know, is in — is in government.
OK. I admit I was born and raised in a suburb and don’t know all that much about farming. I do think, though, that Mr. Limbaugh is somewhat confused about how butter is made. Furthermore, since the report he’s talking about here deals with American obesity, I’m not sure what the connection is with UNICEF, which provides food assistance to poor and developing countries. (You know, places where an overabundance of Big Macs would be a health crisis they’d be happy to face.)

However, there is another problem with Rush’s outburst, one which emerges quite regularly in right-wing arguments about the multifarious evils of the welfare state. It is simple: if government spending on poverty were the cause of obesity and ill-health, then one would expect to find at least a recurring correlation between the size of a country’s welfare state and its obesity rates. According to this logic, European societies (or, say, Canada) should be currently facing much higher rates of these problems than the US. Which is…decidedly not the case, as these figures (via the International Obesity Task Force) suggest.

I find it helpful to repeat this exercise whenever an argument comes up that the welfare state has caused all sorts of Very Bad Things in the good old USA, such as violent crime, family break-up, teen pregnancy etc. It’s not that all liberal policies over the last half century have always made sense, but let’s distribute blame and credit where they’re due. What might help here is a kind of political Elk Test to be applied to Evil Welfare State arguments before they are allowed out on the road.

The test is simple. Ask yourself: ‘Has Problem X been significantly worse in Sweden than in America?’. If not, back to the drawing board.

3. At, David Corn has an interesting discussion of what might be the growing ranks of the Bush-is-an-idiot camp…among conservatives.

Like Corn, I’ve long thought that simply labelling George W. Bush stupid was perhaps not politically wise. I’ve also wrestled with the problem of whether his demonstrated inarticulacy and ignorance is real or some kind of folksy act to make him seem like a regular guy. But, as Corn points out, this is a serious problem, and not just for those who oppose him.
If the commander in chief cannot talk more articulately about his strategy for winning an elective war he initiated, the problem is serious. It’s become a truism tossed about by partisan Democrats looking to score political points, but it actually is true: Bush has little to offer but stay-the-course-ism. And he shows no signs of considering other options. His plan once was rather simply stated: The United States would train Iraqi security forces and when the Iraqis can take over the United States would leave. But as sectarian violence spreads—and the security forces become part of the conflict—that basic plan becomes thinner by the day.
With a lot of things going badly wrong and a potentially disastrous mid-term election on the way, I can imagine that there are a lot of disappointed and angry conservatives out there.
In the meantime, the plan-free war continues, and the Bush-backers mainly duck that uncomfortable issue: whether this war is too much for the man who launched it. That does appear to be the big elephant in the room. And it seems that even conservatives and Republicans are finding it difficult to ignore its smell.
4. And, in Germany, far-right extremists made an embarrassing faux pas during one of their recent publicity campaigns:
Ironically, the photo in question is of an attractive blond in a tank top and short skirt next to the slogan: "German is Hot!" But in an embarrassing faux pas for the German nationalists, a Berlin Web blog found out that the Teutonic hottie is actually a Czech lingerie model. So much for offering a "free-patriotic point of view," as was supposedly the remit of the less-than-objective Objektiv.
The photo was also used without permission, and copyright infringement proceedings might be on the way….

Saturday, September 02, 2006

German Eyes Are Smiling

Speaking of real men....

Congratulations to Germany, now with a good start on its path to the European Championship, for defeating Ireland for the first time in 27 years. With real men, like my favourite player, Oliver Neuville (pictured, though with his old number, 8, rather than his new number, 10).

Danke Jungs!! Gut gemacht!

Men. Real Men. Real, real men.

A guest weekend dispatch from The Wife (needless to say, I beg – but in a manly way – to differ): (PS: The fine figure of humanity in the picture below is not The Wife.)

Of course we know that men in the West are oppressed (poor things). They are underrepresented in politics and administration, they have a hard time making it into high-quality, responsible jobs (and if they do make it they are usually underpaid while forever fending with the patronising benevolence and straightforward dismissiveness of the matriarchs) and, because of their proverbial lack of driving talent, they are forced to pay higher car insurance premiums.

Well at least German men now have a TV-programme of their own to help take their minds off the sorrow and the pity. It is called DMAX, it advertises itself as putting variety first and uses the ingenious slogan “Neue Männer an die Macht” (power to new men) to garner eager and regular viewers. As we haven’t poisoned our lives with cable or satellite, I am sadly unable to while away my free time with this exciting new feature, but the website is itself revealing to the point of being offputting.

There is the picture of a man jumping across a canyon, by the looks of it. (It might be a photoshop job, but who knows these days.) The schedule features programmes on monster houses, mega cars and big bucks. [Nothing small in these pants. -- Ed.] There is a fast-cut trailer displaying masculinity in different shades and colours (no, actually, come to think of it, not different colours): Ewan McGregor à la Obi Wan with a vicious (by Ewan standards) snarl, Louis Theroux being indecently assaulted by a massage master, a professional playboy on a yacht, an obese team of scrapyard owners (who’ve already had plenty of media exposure in Germany) and, by way of an antidote, Morgan Spurlock trying to get rid of some of the excess weight put on during his notorious fast food experiment. (Click on 'Trailer ansehen' to have the pleasure.)

It not only shows boys but also their toys: plenty of more or less shiny metal with two or four wheels, sledgehammers and wheelbarrows and, somewhat mystifyingly, an exploding portable toilet. And then there are brief references to archetypal settings of the male quest for identity, a dusty desert, a splish-splashing ocean and somewhat more mundane but no less treacherous building sites.

Now I wonder what makes these men new: they’re silly, they love fast machines and they play pranks on each other.

What hath Fight Club wrought?

For the best example of truly new manhood in that bunch, I’d pick Louis Theroux though:

Friday, September 01, 2006

Album titles and the sublime

Yo La Tengo is an excellent band, their music full of weird, noisy-but-melodic magic. Hearing some of their songs on the right kind of autumnal day makes me sigh deeply and smile.

But now I have one more reason to like them. The title of their new album is I Am Not Afraid of You and I will Beat Your Ass.


(They're good at this sort of thing. Their previous album titles include I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out.)