" /> I write: June 2008
Curmudgeonalia
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June 30, 2008

Media Madness

The Corruption of Our Political Culture
James Bowman – ISBN – 9781594032127

“James Bowman compellingly argues that the contemporary reign of ‘media madness’ has been allowed to ‘grow and spread like some pest whose natural predators have been eliminated.’ This is a scathing, provocative, brilliant and useful book.” This jacket blurb is by a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, and the editor of the Huffington Post. This is not a conservative commenting. Both he and the writer are liberals nearing the outer reaches, while clearly remaining in touch with reality.

It is a fascinating read--brief, challenging and informative. My only complaint is that he too often writes like a professor entangled in Derridaesque deconstruction. He emphasizes that being a journalist does not implicitly endow one with capacity to transcend one’s point of view and the cachet of objectivity (brilliant) and then delivers a 145 word, circular sentence with almost no punctuation. Other times he is clumsy: “History shows us no way of choosing not to fight, so long as there is still fight in the enemy, except for surrender.” Why not simply, if the enemy chooses to fight, surrender is the only alternative its continuance?

Caveats excepted, he is adamant about the insistence of the media-mad press that difficult and complicated issues of the day—war, health care, social security, etc.—are moral rather than political . . . and they occupy the high ground. Those who disagree are uninformed, imbecilic, or evil. No possibility of honest disagreement. This leads them and the rest of us to ponderances with those who share our prejudices and world views, rather than productive debates with adversaries.

The media has taught its consumers that feelings are more important than facts. A sage observed years ago that you may interpret the facts as you will, but you not entitled your own facts. Some things are simply true; even “fair and balanced” doesn’t make the grade, since giving alternate interpretations of feelings is not the same as stating the facts.

On the more arcane side he reminds that when Elvis Presley died there was almost no reportage. Compare that with Anna Nicole Smith of recent vintage. When and why did this all change? Media and markets!

They seem always to insist that everything needs be public. But they make anything public, which quite different. If everything is divulged there is little difficulty determining what to think, but cherry picking the data to skew interpretation is illegitimate. Contrariwise, not everything should be made available to the public; for instance, the media’s announcement of how intelligence agencies were tracking Bin Laden with his satellite phone or the banking links used to determine their funding. The enemy promptly changed operations thanks to those “little details” which no one really needed to know. Imagine that the 1945 the invasion plans for D-Day had been announced to the Nazis! That would have resulted in propagators tried for treason. Why not now?

Further, based upon nothing, they have decided that “root causes” exist, and are solely relevant, they proceed to share this wisdom in varietal (usually circuitous) ways. To whit, crime cannot at once be the root cause of poverty while poverty is the root cause of crime. Unfortunately, a majority is now convinced of this, despite the illogic.

Since there exists no natural check on media, it’s easy to presume that politicians are out of touch . . . but out of touch with what, as determined by whom? The president has information unknown to the press, and: “It is [in] itself a sign of detachment from reality to suppose that . . . any President of the United State is clueless about the things that are so plain to his journalistic critics.” The default setting of the media in our psychotherapeutic world is often pop-psychologizing, and it is as dangerous as it is ill informed. It is neither the administration’s job to be out of touch with reality nor the media’s job to point it out.

Since Watergate the press has appointed itself to make judgments for us, and explain them for our benefit, since they are intellectually and morally superior to both us and our leaders. These things can only be unmasked with a sagacity and shrewdness they alone possess. This is considerably worsened by intellectual elites who have followed suit, taking their own cracks at “Bushite mendacity, viciousness, corruption, and, with luck, criminality.”

And, finally (from the review standpoint) he observes the incongruous attitude of the media that the need for millennial achievement of earthly perfection leads them to conclude that nothing can be done until everything can be done. Addressing failing schools must await the elimination of poverty and crime; the third world mess is the result of European colonialism, which left it miserable, so there isn’t much to be done until it is corrected culturally. Media multiculturalists are committed to assumptions of equality between cultures, thus never consider the consequences of cultural differences. Attitudes notwithstanding, things are not always in our control. Utopian ideation prevents accommodation of the fact that these challenging problems are not well served by a little wisdom--which in any event cannot be expected from the bungling boobs in power who lack the imagination or intellect to address root causes.

It has become a point of pride for the people of the media to see themselves as not only without a party but also without a country. Agenda free, of course. Fair minded and honest to a fault.

I part with a couple of quotes from famous American poets:

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information.”
T. S. Eliot

“A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”
Robert Frost

Posted by respeto at 11:58 AM

June 21, 2008

Older Books are often worth reading

The Wolf of Masada (1978)
John Fredman

Voyage of the Damned (1974)
Gordon Thomas & Max Witts

Those familiar with my reviewing habits will recognize my penchant for reading/rereading out of print books. Recently I was reminded of two great books from the 70’s which are well worth the time. Both have multiple ISBN’s having been reissued over years.

Wolf” is historic fiction, but closely follows history known at the time of its original publication. It was precipitated by archaeological facts unearthed by a major, contemporaneous dig at Masada, and relied upon the only account of the fall of that historic site by Josephus—a Jewish commander who surrendered to and became a Roman in order to survive. He witnessed the event at the direction of the Emperor Vespasian, and wrote the history which touted Roman preeminence, manifest by the conquest of the Jews and Jerusalem (and honored by the construction of the Arch of Titus near the Forum in Rome.)

Yet, it was written with the spirit which made Masada the epic battle cherished by Jews for its intense symbolism. Simon ben Eleazar, the Wolf of Masada, had been many things over his eventful life: shepherd, slave, gladiator, centurion, and finally Roman general, fellow combatant, and friend of Vespasian before the latter became Emperor, and the former reclaimed and defended his Jewish lineage. No doubt much of that “history” is manufactured; still it is compatible of the few things known about Simon.

But, the history which matters most is the final chapter, the conquest of Herod’s impenetrable fortress at Masada by a determined Roman commander. He accomplished this only after construction of an enormous earthen ramp--which survives to this day--in order to overwhelm the fortress. On breaching the walls he found that the surviving Jews had sacrificed themselves rather than be taken prisoner to be enslaved and/or executed by the Romans. In so doing they authored the incredible event which was savored by, and which legacy sustained the Jews thru two millennia of exile from Jerusalem. Recall the lament of Jews: “next year in Jerusalem?” Herein is the origin of that sentimental promise.

It is one of the better books of its kind which you will find on this or any subject, and easily compares with the writings of the current best selling author, Bernard Cornwell.

Voyage” is an historic account of the S.S. St. Louis, a ship of the Hamburg-American Line, which carried nearly 1,000 forcefully expatriated Jews from Germany to Cuba to be relocated. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister correctly surmised that they would be refused entry, thus making German intention of “getting rid of these vermin” understandable and acceptable to—or at least not challenged by--the West. The refugees were rejected, by both the Cubans and the Americans-!! They were forced to return to Europe where the vast majority of them died or were exterminated in Nazi Death Camps. Neither Roosevelt’s nor America’s finest hour, to be sure. Perhaps worth recalling as the debate about Israel is discussed in the upcoming election.

Gustav Schroeder, captain of the ship on this voyage was more than displeased. First he was neither admirer nor member of the Nazi Reich, and was both sensitive to and supportive of the Jewish expats who were being humiliated and sacrificed by this endeavor. He was humbled as well by the fact that even in divestiture these Jews identified themselves as German. As a result of his endeavors he was “grounded” and lived out the remainder of his life in anonymity as an outcast in what became East Germany after the war. (He was interviewed for this book by an anonymous person to protect him.)

The book is a riveting account of the tribulations of those Jews on board, the efforts made on their behalf, and the machinations undertaken to foster their refusal by both the Nazi S.S. and principals of the several nations involved in their rejection . . . and return to all but certain death.

One is reminded—or informed—of the attitudes of the era, the anti-Semitism then and now, and the awesome evil that exists in the world, and has since at least the time of Eleazar.

In an epilog the authors recant the names of those interviewed, or at least contacted in their preparation of the account, and the fate of the passengers: those who lived and those who died . . . and the traumas experienced by the survivors.

Overall both are incredibly good reads, both for information, the humanity and inhumanity invoked in the narratives, and the history of Jews in the world.

Posted by respeto at 12:48 PM

June 14, 2008

The War That Made America

A Short History of the French and Indian War
Fred Anderson – ISBN – 978-0670034543

Not especially short at 265 pages, it is nonetheless very well written and of particular interest to those who really don’t want to “know it all,” and enjoy his style and ability to deal with both historic detail and philosophy without being tedious. He satisfactorily explains how that particular war changed the landscape of North American power forever, by removing the French imperial presence while depriving the Indians of the only ally they had to arm and assist them against the Anglo-Americans who lusted for their land. (Not that the French didn’t!)

It also tempted the British Empire—in which name the war was fought--to imagine itself able to fully exercise exclusive power over the colonists, ultimately authoring the colonials American Revolution as a fight for their own liberty from empire. As well it encouraged Americans to indiscriminately see all Indians as enemies, and impediments to expansion, as it set the stage for the conquest of the remaining, huge portion of what is now the United States.

He emphasizes the oft overlooked fact that Washington learned and experienced command for the first time in this conflict, and did so in a less than redemptive fashion, leaving hundreds of wounded and dead soldiers; he did learn from the experience however, which was always Washington’s strength.

He reconfirms that European settlement ultimately reduced the native population by 90 percent, while emphasizing that, given access to western war implements also increased the violence of indigenous cultures. Said weaponry was usually the determinant factor in which tribes survived and conquered before they, themselves, were annihilated or conquered. War is not, after all, a one sided concept and the natives had been warring amongst themselves for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans.*

There are many companion maps to assist in the dialogue, and sufficient pictures to warrant better interest and understanding.

He eloquently remonstrates in his epilogue that “[it recalls for] us that even the most complete victories can sow the seeds of reversal and defeat for victors too dazzled by success to remember that they are, in fact, only human.”

If you’re inclined toward military historic writing this is a worthwhile book.

*which reminds of another book I found fascinating: War Before Civilization (ISBN-978-01951191210) which discusses in interesting detail the fact—unlike most anthropologists would prefer that we believe—that “primitives” didn’t really fight. They just got along and loved the land of which they were part, etc.

Posted by respeto at 2:44 PM

June 8, 2008

Obamaniacs and Demagoguery

In the Wall Street Journal there was a recent comment: “In Mr. Obama, Democrats are taking a leap of faith that is daring, even by their risky standards.”

And why do they “dare”? Well, it seems that they (Dems and WSJ) consider “extraordinary” the fact that a huge number of citizens appear willing to put the future in the hands of an inexperienced young man with no track record who just happens to be a skilled campaigner and an inspiring speaker; one who gives no clue how he would govern . . . assuming he has a clue himself.

What he does make clear is that he will, if allowed, be in charge of us all, take care of us all, and do it in whatever way he sees fit. Of course the details are few, and those few are frightening to the alert amongst us recognize that the devil is always in the details.

I dunno 'bout-chew, but I want to be left alone to care for myself and those I value, with due consideration of others, and immense caution towards those who would tell me what to do, how to do it, and when . . . and then send me the bill.

What this graphically demonstrates is the complete ignorance and naiveté of a large portion of the public. This is what all demagogues and would be dictators have been counting on since time immemorial. In many times, in many ways, and by many sages it has been observed that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

These folks don’t simply ignore history, they are unaware of it. And they don't seem to recognize or care that they are ignorant. They just want someone who is "concerned" to care about them. "Change" (whatever that means) is the mantra of the day. It is frightening to me that these people are allowed to vote in a republic.

Posted by respeto at 10:26 AM

June 7, 2008

Survival of the Sickest

The Surprising Connections Between Disease and Longevity
Dr. Sharon Moalem – ISBN – 9780060889661

Talk about fascinating! This work is at once deeply enlightening and a pleasure to read. He has a wholly unique manner of writing: refreshing, almost lilting, and in some ways similar to Bill Bryson in that it is entertaining while immensely informative. His creative metaphors clearly stem from a vast knowledge base outside of medicine. He makes clear—that is: MAKES CLEAR—that which he is explaining with a wry, inviting humor.

He begins by noting several well known and common genetic aberrations which, while they may kill, are proven to assist in survival. Examples are Hemochromatosis (an iron storage disease) common in European peoples, which provides protection against Plague, and Sickle Cell Anemia in blacks from Africa, as well as Thallasemia, a variant found in Mediterranean Europe, both of which protect against Malaria. Diabetes itself is demonstrably protective against cold (read ice-age.)

One might wonder why diseases which kill are so common. The answer: for the most part they do not kill the young. Rather, they defer their complications until individuals are past the reproductive period of early adulthood, thus assisting in the survival of the race.

When he has your undivided attention he proceeds to cholesterol, and its provision of the substrate for Vitamin D, noting (not so) humorously that when the Australians began a campaign to slather themselves with UV sun blocking creams, the incidence of Avitaminosis D skyrocketed. Less skin cancer, more rickets anyone? As well, he emphasizes that one’s ancestral climate is paramount. African Americans, for instance, are twenty to forty times less likely to develop melanomas. Where our ancestors came from, and how they adapted, is important to us; many of the current problems are related to the incredible mobility of moderns, appearing all over the planet in environments for which they are unsuited by genetics.

Further, regarding cholesterol, he observes that one might be able to reduce cholesterol by getting sufficient sunlight to covert the excess to Vitamin D. “Wouldn’t you rather hit the tanning salon before starting a lifetime of Lipitor? That’s food for thought.”

Researchers observe that we consume 5-10,000 natural toxins annually, and that 20 percent of cancer-related deaths are caused by ingredients commonly in our diet. So . . . why don’t we evolve mechanisms to ablate these toxins? The short answer is that we have, we do, and we will continue. He then explains.

He advances varietal discussions of infectious agents, embellishing some of the observations in Good Germs, Bad Germs, just reviewed. He concludes that if we worked at it we might just find ways for the good germs to survive in healthy individuals, protecting them against the bad guys.

The discussion of host/parasite relationships is expository and well done, emphasizing for instance, that malaria keeps one bedridden so that mosquitoes are able to feed easily, while the common cold permits you to go to work where you can more easily spread the goodies.

Finally, in later chapters, he notes that the genetic makeup affects an individual’s response to “a given drug” is now being recognized as demanding of “personalized medicine,” tailored to need and genome. He also emphasizes the “dangerous antibiotic arms race,” suggesting that, instead we should be looking at vectors which bring diseases and see how we can either avoid them or alter their behavior. While we may be outmatched by their ability to respond to varietal conditions, we are smarter.

I was especially fascinated by his discussion of DNA/RNA. For years we have “known” that only about 3% of our DNA matters, the rest is “junk stuff” carried over from the evolutionary process. Not so, it is now realized. Much of is not junk, but critical to our health, and much of it is now presumed to be viral materials incorporated in the evolutionary process millions of years ago, without which we could not survive. As well he delves into generational genomic discoveries which stand the world of genetics on its ear. The genome is not just passed along with rare change, but is dynamic, ongoing, and is even influenced by nurture.

He concludes: “I hope that you’ll come away from this book with an appreciation of three things. First, that life is in a constant state of creation. Evolution isn’t over—it’s all around you, changing as we go. Second, that nothing in our world exists in isolation. We—meaning humans and animals and plants and microbes and everything else—are all evolving together. Third, that our relationship with disease is often much more complex than we have previously realized.

Great Read!

Posted by respeto at 11:55 AM

June 1, 2008

The Englishman’s Daughter

Ben Macintyre - ISBN – 9781587242328 (2001)

As with The Napoleon of Crime, this book is no longer in print. As well, it is a superbly researched and fascinating book. One wonders just where Macintyre gets his leads and ideas, but this is now the third book I have read by the man, and they are all outstanding.

The Englishman’s Daughter is an interesting, true story of WW I vintage. A small contingent of English soldiers was trapped behind enemy lines in the small, remote, medieval French village of Villeret, and was hidden by the townsfolk for several years. During that time a few were out and about, some were confined to attics, etc., and one spent all of every day in a wardrobe!

They were a conundrum for the villagers, because the Tommies were allies, yet the penalty for hiding them was severe. The German occupiers were not at all kindly, and the officer in charge of their village was a particularly mean, treacherous and paranoid SOB.

As fate would have it, one of the “keenest” of the Englishmen, well educated, suave and persuasive—and an officer—fell in love with the most attractive young woman in the village, with whom he sired a baby: the Englishman’s daughter. Most of the villagers were unhappy to mortified, yet they did not—then-- reveal the soldiers to the German forces.

The tale chronicles the activities of the villagers: their history, tribal culture, details of their daily existence, even their smuggling and spying, which clandestine activities would be punishable by death if discovered. It lingers over intimate details of the relationships amongst principals, and gives one a feel for the period, for life in an ancient, isolated village, and for the horrors of war—especially WW I with its trenches, poisonous gasses, ritually destructive artillery shelling, etc. It emphasized the terrible destruction of the French countryside whereupon the entire conflict took place.

One comes away with a much better understanding of the toll taken on people, the land, and especially these rural French, whose lives were eviscerated by the war and occupation. German demands upon productivity, were all consuming, and their invasion and destruction of home life was complete. As well, combatants were regularly cycled thru the village for R&R, with no consideration at all for the people from whom all sustenance was demanded. Indeed, Villeret was razed to the ground eventually, ancient castles, churches, and dwellings from the grand to the lowliest hovel.

The English were eventually betrayed, and it is widely presumed that a villager was responsible, but no one has ever concretely determined who. Nearly a century afterward it matters to the villagers, who still honor the date of execution of the Tommies as spies, led by the (now octogenarian) Englishman’s daughter! Macintyre reviews all of the possible culprits, and identifies the surprising, probable miscreant.

For those who prefer “escape reading” which is informative as well as captivating, this fits the bill.

Posted by respeto at 10:40 AM