Gallery of art and thoughts

The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Boston College football

I wrote on the BC football team in Monday's Daily Item. Two days later, the Eagles nearly blew a 27-0 lead in the MPC Computers Bowl. BC ultimately defeated Boise State, 27-21, when Broncos quarterback Jared Zabransky threw a pass into the Eagles' end zone, and saw BC safety Ryan Glasper snare it.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Religion and death

I'm reading Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." While David Barrett, a writer on religion, tells The Guardian that the book is "basically a hack thriller, a typical airport book," it is a compelling read. That said, what is more interesting about the book is what it suggests about its readership.

Umberto Eco, writer of "In the Name of the Rose," criticizes Brown's book in cultural terms. "The existing religions just aren't big enough: we demand something more from God than the existing depictions in the Christian faith can provide," Eco writes in the Telegraph. "So we revert to the occult." While he unfairly tarnishes all occultism with the stamp of racism -- "many of Hitler's henchmen were devotees of the most infantile occult fantasies," he writes -- and while he makes no mention of the atrocities committed in the name of organized religion, he does make a good case for religious tradition.

How does he do this? By affirming a truism of life. "Religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which reconcile us to death," Eco writes. It is very difficult for me to accept that life, as Macbeth said, is "but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more." Religion restores our significance. What Eco is denouncing is society's sense, at least in the West, that it has outgrown religion.

What are the alternatives to religion? Occultism, science and material goods (this category can also include money). Europeans seem to be choosing science foremost among this trio -- England is, after all, the home of Richard Dawkins -- while Americans seek comfort through materialism, whether driving their SUVs, shopping at The Gap, or living in comfortable suburban homes. Yes, they may also go to church, but, as Eco wisely pointed out, "Father Christmas means one thing to children: presents. He has no connection with the original St Nicholas, who performed a miracle in providing dowries for three poor sisters, thereby enabling them to marry and escape a life of prostitution."

Dawkins is more optimistic, though I suppose he would have to be. "Obviously," he tells BeliefNet, "there are other things having nothing to do with science —- music, poetry, sex, love. These are all things that make life, to me, extremely worth living." He adds, "Then there's the added fact that it is the only life we’re ever going to get. Don’t kid yourself that you’re going to live again after you’re dead; you’re not. Make the most of the one life you’ve got. Live it to the full."

Still, in such an anonymous world as ours is, it becomes increasingly difficult to live without some justification for it all.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Getting in and out of poverty

Michelle Singletary, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a thought-provoking column in the Dec. 25 issue of the Boston Globe. This column would have been welcome during the affirmative-action debate before the Supreme Court, for it addresses some misconceptions people have about poverty.

In a previous book review, Singletary discussed the Rev. Michael Eric Dyson's response to Bill Cosby's criticism of impoverished African-Americans. "Cosby launched into a rant against lower- and lower-middle-class blacks, who he feels are largely responsible for their economic condition," Singletary wrote. "Dyson criticized Cosby for his lack of empathy for the poor and ignoring the sociological, political, and economic factors that keep those in poverty from achieving more."

Readers who responded to Singletary's book review had harsh words, arguing that it is the decisions that poor people make that are chiefly responsible for their misery; some of these readers used personal testimony to illustrate how, thanks to their own prudence, they were able to escape poverty.

Singletary exposes the fallacy behind these arguments: the success of an individual is due partly to that individual's actions, but it is also due to fortuitous actions by role models -- parents, relatives, and teachers, for example. "My grandmother taught me how to be frugal," Singletary wrote. "But Big Mama wasn't much help when it came to applying to college. I got that push from my high school counselor, who literally hounded me until I applied for a journalism scholarship."

In high school and beyond, the roles played by adults become crucial to success -- particularly the mentoring and networking capabilities played by alumni of, for instance, prep schools and Ivy League colleges. Professional relationshops forged at summer internships or co-op programs also prove helpful.

Singletary deserves credit for her refreshing riposte to the American idea of individual success. "I hate the expression 'pull yourself up by your own bootstraps' because no one gets where they are in life without some help or guidance," she wrote. Words for us all to remember.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Harvard Square: Hello, goodbye

An Associated Press article posted on describes a melancholy development: the corporatization of Harvard Square, as the formerly quirky mecca of intellectualism becomes a momument to mass marketing.

The article describes the utopian Harvard Square of previous decades, when Harvard professors mingled with homeless people over cholesterol-laden meals at the Tasty. There were other places with panache: the Wursthaus, a cavernous German restaurant, the Bow and Arrow, where Matt Damon wooed Minnie Driver in "Good Will Hunting," and Briggs & Briggs, a music lover's paradise. All of these stores are gone, with others -- the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, the Brattle Theater -- on the brink. Replacing them are adidas stores and Citizens Banks.

Are barbarians finally reaching the brick gates -- modern-day Alarics and Odoacers wearing adidas, listening to iPods and stashing their plunder at Citizens? It's sad to see beloved businesses close and their employees get laid off. It's also sad to see the outrageous real estate prices demanded by landlords -- Harvard among them. These prices are one reason why smaller-scale stores shut down.

Places like Harvard Square provide people with the refreshing news that Starbucks, adidas, and Wal-Mart don't own every piece of commercial real estate in this country. While it's nice to get cheap clothing at Target, and while the prices at, say, the Harvard Book Store are often quite high, Harvard Square offered residents of Cambridge, and other visitors, an urban refuge from suburban sameness. As the Square loses its iconoclastic identity, we, as Americans, lose part of our identity as well.

Some remedies exist. Near Harvard Square are two other squares with healthy sprinklings of unconventionality: Brattle Square, with its storied old barn of a theater, along with the Algiers coffeeshop and the Casablanca restaurant; and Central Square, which, with its assortment of clubs and funky restaurants, seems on its way to becoming the old Harvard Square.

Also, the stores that formerly populated Harvard Square might want to consider moving to other parts of the country, where the rents are cheaper. (Any red state will do.) It's condescending to think that only Harvard students like or appreciate Beethoven, Baudelaire or Bergman. Time for a mass exodus to combat mass culture.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Saddam's fate?

What will happen to Saddam Hussein? When he is found guilty, as he undoubtedly will be, what will be his fate -- life imprisonment or death? Victorino Matus, writing in Policy Review, believes that Iraqis will execute their former dictator, and based on precedent, the results may be gruesome.

The United States has toppled one dictator, but in the Middle East, there is no shortage of them, from the president of Iran to Bashir al-Assad in Syria. If Iraq is to be a haven for democracy in the region, it must be freed of the conditions that allow autocrats to flourish. How to do so?

It's a difficult process. The absence of a large Iraqi military may prevent a coup, but the competing claims of Sunnis and Shiites are preventing the two peoples from working together. The American military has neutralized Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- "Zarqawi and other insurgent leaders drive many miles every day to escape the coalition and Iraqi forces constantly chasing them," Frederick W. Kagan writes, also in Policy Review. However, Zarqawi's mere presence in the country shows that terrorism remains a threat.

However well-intentioned, the calls of politicians like Rep. John Murtha for withdrawal from Iraq cannot be heeded. The objective upon which the US staked itself in the Second Gulf War -- not simply defeating Saddam, but transforming his dictatorship into a democracy -- will require many more years of a stabilizing American presence. That may rankle politicians and the public. But it is the only way to succeed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Munich, 1972

Steven Spielberg has come out with a movie about the Israeli response to the 1972 murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Based on David Brooks' review in the New York Times, the film seems flawed, reflecting Hollywood pieties on tolerance at the cost of reality.

First, some background. Members of the Palestinian terror group Black September attacked the Olympic compound housing members of the Israeli team in 1972. The attackers killed two Olympians in the attack and took nine more hostage. During a clumsy German attempt to free the hostages, all of them died. So did five terrorists (out of eight) and one German policeman. The Olympics continued after a day of mourning, but International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage did not mention the slain Israeli athletes during a speech on the first day that the Games resumed. Thanks to Arab protests, the United Nations did not pass a US-sponsored resolution condemning the terrorism. Reprisal attempts by the Israeli government killed Palestinian terror leaders, but whether or not these leaders were all involved in the Munich attack is questionable.

Now, Spielberg's film. It seems to show an interesting evolution in the man's career. In 1989, he portrayed Muslims as suicidal foils to Indiana Jones. Here, he generally absents them from "Munich" and lets ambivalent Israeli secret agents question whether all the violence is necessary. Spielberg says, "A response to a response doesn't really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual motion machine ... There's been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in that region. Where does it end?
"The only thing that's going to solve this is rational minds, a lot of sitting down and talking until you're blue in the gills."
Sounds like a sequel to Kingdom of Heaven, albeit almost 800 years later. In that film, too, Hollywood attempted to sell moviegoers the notion that the Middle East is a battle between two groups of people who, if they would only be persuaded to sit down in the same room, could solve their differences. Rubbish. Saladin wanted the Franks out of the Middle East, just as Hamas wants Israel out of historical Palestine, and just as many Israelis want Palestinians to be deported to Jordan. As long as Israelis and Palestinians cling to their conceptions of themselves, there will be no peace, and cold war will be the best possible outcome.

Why is the man behind Schindler's List -- a film that, more than any other, awakened the public to the magnitude of the Jews' suffering -- now coming out with a film that diminishes the Munich tragedy? In Hollywood today, both principles are holy writ: the Holocaust is bad, and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is bad. To question either statement would be tantamount to questioning Josef Stalin during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

Perhaps Spielberg simply knows his audience. The people who will see this film will do so after hearing about it on NPR and reading about it in the New York Times (although the Gray Lady deserves credit for running Brooks' piece). Or perhaps Spielberg believes what he is saying. It's easy to do so when you live far from the actual conflict. Yes, by all means, let's put both sides in a room and talk our problems over ... unless the other side is Republican.

I will see this movie and add further comments once I have done so.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The woes of Generation X

Ten years ago this day, I was admitted into Harvard. I felt like my future was secured and that, like Tom Buchanan, I "had reached such an acute limited excellence in life" at age seventeen "that everything else savors of anticlimax."

After getting my bachelor's at Harvard and a master's in journalism at Columbia, I'm now dealing with paying off student loans. This makes me a typical Gen-Xer, according to this Business Week article, which describes the indebtedness of today's twenty- and thirtysomethings.

This indebtedness is ascribed to two factors: rising college costs, and the increased availability and use of credit cards. While the article does not attempt to find out why these factors have increased, it does present some compelling portraits of young people dealing with the stresses of insurmountable costs. Among them: Cristina Garcia Gamboa, 30, and her husband Manuel. Both have graduate degrees, she from Medill and he from Texas, but the price is steep: they plan to pay $1,256 a month over a decade to settle their student loans.

The result of these troubles? Tamara Draut, director of the New York-based economic opportunity program Demos, says, "This is the first generation who won't necessarily do better than their parents. They've been told: 'Apply yourself. You'll get a job, a home.' For many young people that's not the case."

Postscript: Poorer members of Generation Y are feeling the hardship, too, according to this Boston Globe Magazine article.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

More on Israel-Palestine

I had an opinion piece on the Israel-Palestine crisis published in Friday's Lynn Daily Item. I hope to watch the footage of the Chomsky-Dershowitz debate sometime soon.

The question of why people become suicide bombers has occupied my attention for a while. It is something that is antithetical to everything that I value. I have asked the question to Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz and former Israeli Defense Forces colonel Miri Eisen. Now, writer Hans Magnus Enzensperger takes on the question in a provocative piece for the German website Sign and Sight. Enzensperger posits that "the instinct of self-preservation is not up to much," citing the adulation won by religious martyrs. He adds, "The remarkable fondness of the human species for suicide, down the ages and across all cultures, is proof enough of this." From this statement he delves into the mind of the suicide bomber -- or, in his words, "the radical loser." He portrays young Muslims across the globe, heirs to a dissipating culture, hopelessly dependent upon the West even for their tactics. His explanation of the terrifying phenomenon of suicide bombers is powerful, persuasive and pessimistic.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Islam and the United States

I've gone to several Islam-related events at Harvard recently. Today I went to a lecture about Saudia Arabia at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The presenter painted a bleak picture of the country due to its corrupt ruling family, its high unemployment rate (about 25 percent), its rising numbers of aimless young men, and the Islamist opposition to the royal family that supports terrorists like Osama bin Laden.

Saudi Arabia has been portrayed as a villain in world affairs by many, from Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 to Craig Unger in House of Bush, House of Saud. Its sponsorship of terror groups, its hatred of Israel (Israelis cannot enter the country), its violations of women's rights (the secret police prevented Muslim schoolgirls from fleeing their burning building because they were not dressed properly, condemning them to a fiery fate), and the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudis have all created hostility toward the country from many in the West.

What distinguishes Saudi Arabia among states with repressive policies is, of course, its command of significant oil reserves. While the United States now commands access to a sizeable amount of Iraqi oil, this pales in contrast with the barrels under Saudi control. This makes the kingdom an instant player on the world economic scene.

Yet is the Saudi government actively trying to change the situation in the Middle East and the world in general, or is it responding to the actions of other countries? The argument has been made that it is Iran, and not Saudi Arabia, that is the chief culprit in the Middle East. From funding Hezbollah in Lebanon to developing its uranium supplies with Russian help, from the anti-Israel slurs of Iran's new president to its attempts to woo the Shiites of Iraq, Iran is seeking to become the dominant power in the Middle East -- and not for the better.

Let us say, then, that the two greatest threats to stability in the Middle East are: the Iranian government, and the disaffected elements of the Saudi population. One is trying to do what Saddan Hussein was prevented from doing -- create weapons of mass destruction -- and foment Iraq-style anarchy across the region. The other is trying to export terror on a more personal scale, whether as mujahideen in Afghanistan or hijackers in America.

Curiously, each country has an element that has been viewed by the West as a possible fulcrum for change. American commentators have high hopes for the young people of Iran, who appear far more amenable to Western influence than, say, their Saudi counterparts. Meanwhile, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has been lauded for his honest dealing. But he is also 81 years old, and presides over a largely free-spending, out-of-touch royal family with hazy succession plans.

Is the Middle East a Sarajevo 1914-style tinderbox? Or can a nuclear crisis be averted? To achieve this, the government of Iran must be stopped from descending into further repression, and the condition of Saudi Arabia must be prevented from falling into Hobbesian (or Iraqi) anarchy.