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Friday, January 29, 2010

Barack Headroom II: Me-mix of the State of the Union address


Download MP3 audio file

Whatever you may say about Barack Obama, he is a master of the first person personal pronoun—it's all about me (and “I”, “my”, “myself” and “mine”)! In the spirit of the original Barack Headroom audio, here's an extract from Obama's full 2010 State of the Union speech of the “me me me” moments: I call it a “me-mix” of the State of the Union.

In this speech, Obama (well, his speechwriters) departed from the usual formula for a State of the Union where in the first minute or so the president declaims “The state of the Union is adjective”, where adjective is usually something like “groovy”, “really sweet”, or “icky, but what do you expect, you truck-driving rubes”. Obama never actually summarised the state of the nation; I suppose if he did, he'd have said, “It sucks, but then I inherited it.”

Imagine how more credible that explanation will be for Obama's successor.

Posted at 22:15 Permalink

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reading List: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Bryson, Bill. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. London: Black Swan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-552-77254-9.
What could be better than growing up in the United States in the 1950s? Well, perhaps being a kid with super powers as the American dream reached its apogee and before the madness started! In this book, humorist, travel writer, and science populariser extraordinaire Bill Bryson provides a memoir of his childhood (and, to a lesser extent, coming of age) in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s and '60s. It is a thoroughly engaging and charming narrative which, if you were a kid there, then will bring back a flood of fond memories (as well as some acutely painful ones) and if you weren't, to appreciate, as the author closes the book, “What a wonderful world it was. We won't see its like again, I'm afraid.”

The 1950s were the golden age of comic books, and whilst shopping at the local supermarket, Bryson's mother would drop him in the (unsupervised) Kiddie Corral where he and other offspring could indulge for free to their heart's content. It's only natural a red-blooded Iowan boy would discover himself to be a superhero, The Thunderbolt Kid, endowed with ThunderVision, which enabled his withering gaze to vapourise morons. Regrettably, the power seemed to lack permanence, and the morons so dispersed into particles of the luminiferous æther had a tedious way of reassembling themselves and further vexing our hero and his long-suffering schoolmates. But still, more work for The Thunderbolt Kid!

This was a magic time in the United States—when prosperity not only returned after depression and war, but exploded to such an extent that mean family income more than doubled in the 1950s while most women still remained at home raising their families. What had been considered luxuries just a few years before: refrigerators and freezers, cars and even second cars, single family homes, air conditioning, television, all became commonplace (although kids would still gather in the yard of the neighbourhood plutocrat to squint through his window at the wonder of colour TV and chuckle at why he paid so much for it).

Although the transformation of the U.S. from an agrarian society to a predominantly urban and industrial nation was well underway, most families were no more than one generation removed from the land, and Bryson recounts his visits to his grandparents' farm which recall what was lost and gained as that pillar of American society went into eclipse.

There are relatively few factual errors, but from time to time Bryson's narrative swallows counterfactual left-wing conventional wisdom about the Fifties. For example, writing about atomic bomb testing:

Altogether between 1946 and 1962, the United States detonated just over a thousand nuclear warheads, including some three hundred in the open air, hurling numberless tons of radioactive dust into the atmosphere. The USSR, China, Britain, and France detonated scores more.

Sigh…where do we start? Well, the obvious subtext is that U.S. started the arms race and that other nuclear powers responded in a feeble manner. In fact, the U.S. conducted a total of 1030 nuclear tests, with a total of 215 detonated in the atmosphere, including all tests up until testing was suspended in 1992, with the balance conducted underground with no release of radioactivity. The Soviet Union (USSR) did, indeed, conduct “scores” of tests, to be precise 35.75 score with a total of 715 tests, with 219 in the atmosphere—more than the U.S.—including Tsar Bomba, with a yield of 50 megatons. “Scores” indeed—surely the arms race was entirely at the instigation of the U.S.

If you've grown up in he U.S. in the 1950s or wished you did, you'll want to read this book. I had totally forgotten the radioactive toilets you had to pay to use but kids could wiggle under the door to bask in their actinic glare, the glories of automobiles you could understand piece by piece and were your ticket to exploring a broad continent where every town, every city was completely different: not just another configuration of the same franchises and strip malls (and yet recall how exciting it was when they first arrived: “We're finally part of the great national adventure!”)

The 1950s, when privation gave way to prosperity, yet Leviathan had not yet supplanted family, community, and civil society, it was utopia to be a kid (although, having been there, then, I'd have deemed it boring, but if I'd been confined inside as present-day embryonic taxpayers in safetyland are I'd have probably blown things up. Oh wait—Willoughby already did that, twelve hours too early!). If you grew up in the '50s, enjoy spending a few pleasant hours back there; if you're a parent of the baby boomers, exult in the childhood and opportunities you entrusted to them. And if you're a parent of a child in this constrained century? Seek to give your child the unbounded opportunities and unsupervised freedom to explore the world which Bryson and this humble scribbler experienced as we grew up.

Vapourising morons with ThunderVision—we need you more than ever, Thunderbolt Kid!

A U.S. edition is available.

Posted at 01:32 Permalink

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reading List: The Persian Night

Taheri, Amir. The Persian Night. New York: Encounter Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59403-240-0.
With Iran continuing its march toward nuclear weapons and long range missiles unimpeded by an increasingly feckless West, while simultaneously domestic discontent over the tyranny of the mullahs, economic stagnation, and stolen elections are erupting into bloody violence on the streets of major cities, this book provides a timely look at the history, institutions, personalities, and strategy of what the author dubs the “triple oxymoron”: the Islamic Republic of Iran which, he argues, espouses a bizarre flavour of Islam which is not only a heretical anathema to the Sunni majority, but also at variance with the mainstream Shiite beliefs which predominated in Iran prior to Khomeini's takeover; anything but a republic in any usual sense of the word; and motivated by a global messianic vision decoupled from the traditional interests of Iran as a nation state.

Khomeini's success in wresting control away from the ailing Shah without a protracted revolutionary struggle was made possible by support from “useful idiots” mostly on the political left, who saw Khomeini's appeal to the rural population as essential to gaining power and planned to shove him aside afterward. Khomeini, however, once in power, proved far more ruthless than his coalition partners, summarily putting to death all who opposed him, including many mullahs who dissented from his eccentric version of Islam.

Iran is often described as a theocracy, but apart from the fact that the all-powerful Supreme Guide is nominally a religious figure, the organisation of the government and distribution of power are very much along the lines of a fascist state. In fact, there is almost a perfect parallel between the institutions of Nazi Germany and those of Iran. In Germany, Hitler created duplicate party and state centres of power throughout the government and economy and arranged them in such a way as to ensure that decisions could not be made without his personal adjudication of turf battles between the two. In Iran, there are the revolutionary institutions and those of the state, operating side by side, often with conflicting agendas, with only the Supreme Guide empowered to resolve disputes. Just as Hitler set up the SS as an armed counterpoise to the Wehrmacht, Khomeini created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as the revolution's independent armed branch to parallel the state's armed forces.

Thus, the author stresses, in dealing with Iran, it is essential to be sure whether you're engaging the revolution or the nation state: over the history of the Islamic Republic, power has shifted back and forth between the two sets of institutions, and with it Iran's interaction with other players on the world stage. Iran as a nation state generally strives to become a regional superpower: in effect, re-establishing the Persian Empire from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea through vassal regimes. To that end it seeks weapons, allies, and economic influence in a fairly conventional manner. Iran the Islamic revolutionary movement, on the other hand, works to establish global Islamic rule and the return of the Twelfth Imam: an Islamic Second Coming which Khomeini's acolytes fervently believe is imminent. Because they brook no deviation from their creed, they consider Sunni Moslems, even the strict Wahabi sect of Saudi Arabia, as enemies which must be compelled to submit to Khomeini's brand of Islam.

Iran's troubled relationship with the United States cannot be understood without grasping the distinction between state and revolution. To the revolution, the U.S. is the Great Satan spewing foul corruption around the world, which good Muslims should curse, chanting “death to America” before every sura of the Koran. Iran the nation state, on the other hand, only wants Washington to stay out of its way as it becomes a regional power which, after all, was pretty much the state of affairs under the Shah, with the U.S. his predominant arms supplier. But the U.S. could never adopt such a strategy as long as the revolution has a hand in policy, nor will Iran's neighbours, terrified of its regional ambitions, encourage the U.S. to keep their hands off.

There is a great deal of conventional wisdom about Iran which is dead wrong, and this book dispels much of it. The supposed “CIA coup” against Mosaddegh in 1953, for which two U.S. presidents have since apologised, proves to have been nothing of the sort (although the CIA did, on occasion, claim credit for it as an example of a rare success amidst decades of blundering), with the U.S. largely supporting the nationalisation of the Iranian oil fields against fierce opposition from Britain. But cluelessness about Iran has never been in short supply among U.S. politicians. Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Bill Clinton said:

Iran today is, in a sense, the only country where progressive ideas enjoy a vast constituency. It is there that the ideas I subscribe to are defended by a majority.

Lest this be deemed a slip of the tongue due to intoxication by the heady Alpine air of Davos, a few days later on U.S. television he doubled down with:

[Iran is] the only one with elections, including the United States, including Israel, including you name it, where the liberals, or the progressives, have won two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote in six elections…. In every single election, the guys I identify with got two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote. There is no other country in the world I can say that about, certainly not my own.

I suppose if the U.S. had such an overwhelming “progressive” majority, it too would adopt “liberal” policies such as hanging homosexuals from cranes until they suffocate and stoning rape victims to death. But perhaps Clinton was thinking of Iran's customs of polygamy and “temporary marriage”.

Iran is a great nation which has been a major force on the world stage since antiquity, with a deep cultural heritage and vigorous population who, in exile from poor governance in the homeland, have risen to the top of demanding professions all around the world. Today (as well as much of the last century) Iran is saddled with a regime which squanders its patrimony on a messianic dream which runs the very real risk of igniting a catastrophic conflict in the Middle East. The author argues that the only viable option is regime change, and that all actions taken by other powers should have this as the ultimate goal. Does that mean going to war with Iran? Of course not—the very fact that the people of Iran are already pushing back against the mullahs is evidence they perceive how illegitimate and destructive the present regime is. It may even make sense to engage with institutions of the Iranian state, which will be the enduring foundation of the nation after the mullahs are sent packing, but it it essential that the Iranian people be sent the message that the forces of civilisation are on their side against those who oppress them, and to use the communication tools of this new century (Which country has the most bloggers? The U.S. Number two? Iran.) to bypass the repressive regime and directly address the people who are its victims.

Hey, I spent two weeks in Iran a decade ago and didn't pick up more than a tiny fraction of the insight available here. Events in Iran are soon to become a focus of world attention to an extent they haven't been for the last three decades. Read this book to understand how Iran figures in the contemporary Great Game, and how revolutionary change may soon confront the Islamic Republic.

Posted at 00:36 Permalink