Archive for August, 2010

Forty Years of Tiebreakers

August 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Björn Borg and John McEnroe

The WSJ sports section today includes a short piece by Tom Perrotta celebrating the 40th anniversary of the tennis tiebreaker, which was first used at the 1970 US Open. Perrotta opens, “As this year’s U.S. Open begins, please raise a glass to America’s most significant contribution to the sport of tennis: the tiebreaker.”

The article caught my eye, since I spent a good five or six days at that Open (as I did every year in those days), and I well remember the tiebreaker’s introduction. I was as much surprised by what Perrotta didn’t say as by what he did. If we’re going to reflect on the inaugural tiebreaker, I would have thought that two of its features in particular should be mentioned:

1. Whenever a set reached the score of 6-6, mandating a set-ending tiebreaker game, a red flag would be put up by the umpire’s seat to draw fan attention to the tiebreaker in progress.

2. The tiebreaker initially employed consisted of a nine-point (or fewer) game, with the first player to five points winning the game and thereby the set.

Perhaps a few more words would be appropriate in order to explain the significance of these features.

In case you haven’t been to a major tennis tournament read much about them, you need to understand that the early rounds are played on some two dozen courts spread on grounds surrounding the main stadium or stadia. The US championship was played for decades at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, an area of Queens. There was a concrete stadium, built in 1923, that seated around 14,000 people and, by the time I was a regular attendee, seemed in a state of near collapse. It was, in effect, a dump, but a warm and friendly one. The tournament, as you may know, used to be referred to simply as “Forest Hills,” just as that other tournament, in London, is called “Wimbledon.” Of course, it was for amateurs only for most of its history, pros arriving on the scene only in 1968. On the men’s side that year, Arthur Ashe beat the Dutchman Tom Okker, but Okker received the winner’s prize money since Ashe was still an amateur.

Plus, the courts at Forest Hills were grass in those days. The move from grass to clay was made in 1975, with the tournament moving a few miles north to Flushing and its hard courts in 1978. That I think the tournament lost its character along the way no doubt brands me as a desiccated old man. I can live with that.

By the way, the Forest Hills Stadium was also used for concerts, most notably the first Beatles concerts in New York City. Looking it up, I see that we’re celebrating their anniversary too. They were on August 28 and 29, 1964. I was there, but for which one I don’t remember. What I do remember is waiting forever for the helicopter to appear overhead with them inside.

Anyway, one point I wanted to make was that a spectator during the first week at Forest Hills would ordinarily wander the grounds much of the time, watching part of a match here, another one there, occasionally wandering into the stadium to see whatever match was featured there. This was the context for putting up those red flags when a tiebreaker broke out. You’d see the flag go up across the way and maybe leave the match you were watching to catch it. The flags were a gimmick, but occasionally a useful one.

As for the tiebreaker scoring system, the essential point to keep in mind is the huge advantage the serving player has on a given point. (Too many “points”, I know.) Tennis scoring evolved to take this into account, but the weakness of the initial tiebreaker system is that it didn’t. Let’s review.

The idea for a tiebreaker was introduced by James Van Alen, whose primary motivation was to shorten matches. He had a much more radical idea. As I recall, he wanted to do away with the “win by two” rule at all levels. Ordinarily, a game is scored as follows. One of the two players — player A say — serves throughout, with player B receiving. Each point is won by A or B. Putting aside the standard scoring terminology, we can say that one counts the number of points each wins, and the first one to reach 4 or more points with a 2-point margin over the other wins the game. Thus, a game doesn’t end at 4-3. Another point must be played, and if the player at 4 wins it, he wins the game. If the player doesn’t, they are deadlocked at 4-4 and at least two more points will be required. This continues on perhaps indefinitely. (Of course, we don’t say 4-4 or 5-5 or 6-6, or whatever; we say “deuce”. And we don’t say 5-4 or 4-5. We say “Advantage A” or “Advantage B”. No matter.)

Van Alen wanted to dispense with this. His idea: first to 4 wins the game. End of discussion. No deuces. No extended games.

Next let’s move to the set level. Players A and B alternate serve with each game. The first player to win 6 games with a 2-game margin wins the set. (And the first to win 2 sets out of 3, or at major events, for the men, 3 sets out of 5, wins the match. No 2-set margin is required.) Here came Van Alen’s next idea. We can’t dispose of the 2-game margin, because to do so gives unfair advantage to the player who serves the first game of a set. That player — A say — could win every game he or she serves and win the set at 6-5, with player B also winning every game he or she serves but losing the set nonetheless. Van Alen’s idea was to maintain the required 2-game advantage for winning a set, but if a set did reach a score of 6-6 in games, then the set would be decided by a single, final game: the tiebreaker. In this game, serves would alternate, rather than a single player serving throughout. I have to admit that I don’t remember the precise alternating scheme. Whatever it was, the first player to 5 points would win the tiebreaker game, as noted above, and the set.

When one combines both of Van Alen’s innovations, one ensures that no match can run too long. the number of points in a game is capped; the number of games in a set is capped. Well, sure, two players could play a single point forever, but that doesn’t happen. They could, however, play an unlimited number of points in a game or games in a set. We saw the damage this lack of a cap does just this past June at Wimbledon, where John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played a fifth set that went to a game score of 70-68. The first four sets were played one day, the fifth set the next, but even then they couldn’t finish, with play called on day two at 59-59 in the fifth set and finished on a third day. That this was possible, I should explain, is because at the three majors besides the US Open, tiebreaker games are used to end other sets, but not the fifth set (for men) or third set (for women) of a match. The old rules apply for final sets.

The problem with Van Alen’s tiebreaker system, as adopted at Forest Hills 40 years ago, is that in a 9-point game, one of the players has a serving advantage. Other tournaments adopted modified versions, until everyone settled on the current system, which brings back the need for a two-point margin before a game can end. Not at all what Van Alen had in mind, but it does ensure in a game that produces alternately ties and one-point margins with each point played that neither player wins on the basis of having served one more time than the other. Explicitly, the first to win 6 or more points with a 2-point margin wins the tiebreaker game. Serving alternates as follows: Player A serves once, then B twice, A twice, B twice, and so on to conclusion. This way, each player has served at most one more time than the other, and the two-point margin rule does indeed ensure, in an even tiebreaker, that neither player can win by merely holding all his or her service points.

This revised tiebreaker rule is what made possible the famous fourth set tiebreaker game between Björn Borg and John McEnroe in the Wimbledon finals of 1980. McEnroe won 18-16 to force a fifth set, saving five match points. (He would succumb 8-6 in the fifth.)

Have I said enough yet in service of celebrating this 40th anniversary? I suppose I have.

Categories: Tennis

Catholics on Park51

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

[Chang W. Lee, The New York Times]

In the days since I wrote about the Park51 Community Center (also called Cordoba House, the Burlington Coat Factory Cultural Center, or, erroneously, The Ground Zero Mosque), a few interesting pieces have appeared in Catholic outlets or by prominent Catholics. I have nothing to add to these. I simply want to bring them to your attention.

First, there is the commentary, now online, that will appear as the editorial in the September 10 issue of Commonweal. An excerpt:

The controversy over Park51 was manufactured by opportunists on the Right stoking outrage against what they describe as a “victory mosque” to be built “at Ground Zero” by radical Muslims intent on commemorating their “triumph.” . . . It is an overt appeal to religious bigotry, one that both victimizes Muslims at home and makes it more difficult for ambassadors from the United States to the Muslim world, including Imam Rauf, to win cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

. . .

Muslims were among those who died in the September 11 attacks. They were among the emergency personnel who responded to the disaster and the workers who sorted through the wreckage at Ground Zero. Muslim Americans, like all other Americans, responded to 9/11 in anger and fear, prayed for peace, grieved the loss of loved ones, and enlisted in the armed forces to fight terrorism. Any version of what happened that day that excludes their presence among the victims is inaccurate. Any argument that places all American Muslims outside the definition of “American” or fails to distinguish between ordinary Muslims and terrorists must be rejected.

Asking Imam Rauf and his community to retreat in the face of a deficient understanding of Islam is unreasonable and deeply harmful to attempts to combat Islamist terrorism at home and abroad. It is also a betrayal of the church’s call to rise above prejudice in relations with other faiths. American Catholics should be standing against the opposition to Park51 and all other manifestations of anti-Muslim prejudice. The bishops should be leading the way.

As a complement to this editorial, Paul Moses writes, also at Commonweal, about similarities between anti-Catholic attacks in New York in the nineteenth century and anti-Moslem attacks now. Moses takes us back to 1880 and provides several examples. It’s hard to imagine now that St. Patrick’s Cathedral could have been an object of controversy, but it was:

At the Church of the Disciples of Christ on 28th Street near Broadway, the Rev. Joseph Bradford Cleaver spoke under the title “Crucifix Smiting the Cross; or shall the Papacy govern New York City?” He was among those who saw the opening of the magnificent new St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan the previous year as a dangerous sign of Catholic power and warned that Cardinal John McCloskey, who was “enthroned” there, would rule America as the pope’s viceroy and bring on a new Inquisition if Grace were elected mayor.

Lastly, at the website of the New York Review of Books, R. Scott Appleby and John T. McGreevy (the John M. Regan, Jr. Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame and the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame) have a post with a similar theme. They open with the observation that “As historians of American Catholicism, and Catholics, we are concerned to see the revival of a strain of nativism in the current controversy over the establishment of an Islamic center some blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.” After reviewing some Catholic history, they turn to the current controversy, concluding:

Is it imprudent for Rauf and his supporters to locate the proposed Islamic center so close to the site of terrible violence against Americans committed in the name of Islam? In fact the fault lies less with Rauf than with a debased effort to whip up partisan fervor around the issue. Must Muslims unequivocally reject all forms of terrorism—especially those Muslims who wish to promote full Muslim participation in American society? Of course. But if the Catholic experience in the United States holds any lesson it is that becoming American also means asserting one’s constitutional rights, fully and forcefully, even if that assertion is occasionally taken to be insulting. The genius of the American experiment in religious liberty is precisely this long-term confidence that equal rights for all religious groups builds the loyalty every democratic society needs. Certainly American Catholics learned that lesson long ago.

All three pieces are worth reading in full.

Categories: History, Politics, Religion

Travels in Siberia

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

I used to love the work of the New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, especially his 1989 book Great Plains (some of which I had read earlier as shorter pieces in the New Yorker) and his 1994 autobiographical volume Family. (I also have his next book, On the Rez, from 2000, and enjoyed what I read of it, but never finished it.)

Today I read a short article of his in the current New Yorker about a visit in 2005 to the site of a former gulag in northern Siberia. It’s superb. Read it if you can (but you won’t be able to read it online without access to the New Yorker’s archive). An excerpt:

Prisoners who suffered the terrible fate of being sentenced to work in the gold-mining camps of the lower Kolyma, in the far north, where the river empties into the Arctic Ocean, went by train to Vladivostok, and there or in the neighboring port of Nakhodka boarded slave ships that could carry thousands of prisoners for the long voyage northward along Siberia’s Pacific coast, through the Bering Strait, and westward along the Arctic coast to the Kolyma River delta. These ships sailed with their decks battened down, few lights showing, and the prisoners kept below, in conditions that survivors described as something out of Dante.

Frazier, by the way, is yet another of my many talented college classmates whom I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing at the time but would come to admire later. His book Travels in Siberia is due out on October 12. I’ll be looking for it.

Categories: Books

Felix Hernandez

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment


It’s been a bleak year for the Mariners. When a team does poorly, it is natural to shift one’s attention to individual performances, but even there, there’s not much to get excited about. I’ve been tracking Ichiro’s march toward another season of 200 hits, a march that has been alarmingly slow.* Perhaps it’s time to shift attention to Felix Hernandez’s superb but little-noted pitching performance this year.

I noted a few days ago in my obituary of my brother-in-law Gary that two Fridays ago — the last time he was awake and alert in my presence — the Mariner-Yankee game was on in the background. The volume was off, but we could still see that Felix was dominating the Yankees. He pitched 8 shutout innings with 11 strikeouts, raising his won-loss record to 9-10 and lowering his ERA to 2.51. In his next outing, last Wednesday in Boston, he gave up one run in 7 and a third innings against the Red Sox, with 9 strikeouts, raising his won-loss record to 10-10 and lowering his ERA to 2.47. He leads the league in innings pitched, is second in strikeouts, third in ERA.

There is that 10-10 record, which doesn’t look so hot, but remember, he’s pitching for the worst-hitting team in baseball. He can’t control what his team does at bat. With any reasonable support, he would have a record more like that of the Yankees’ C.C. Sabathia, who last night won his major-league leading 18th game.

Normally, what happens here in Seattle, this provincial baseball outpost, stays in Seattle. But what do you know? People far away are paying attention. At least the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner is. In the weekly Sunday roundup of baseball news around the league, he leads with a discussion of Felix’s plight.

Voters for the Cy Young Award showed last season that they place less emphasis than ever on victories. The National League winner, Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants, had 15, the lowest full-season total for a starter who won the award. Kansas City’s Zack Greinke won in the American League with 16 wins.

Hamels is not a real candidate for the N.L. award (his teammate Roy Halladay will make a strong case), but Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, who has had similar bad luck, should receive consideration in the A.L. The problem is that pesky won-lost record.

Lincecum and Greinke won more than two-thirds of their decisions last season. That is impossible for Hernandez, who is 10-10 after beating Boston on Wednesday. Hernandez finished that start as the league leader in innings (204 1/3) and strikeouts (192), with a 2.47 E.R.A.

Hernandez gives a quality start (at least six innings, no more than three earned runs) almost every time out — 25 of 28. He gives what we could call a high-quality start (seven innings, no more than three earned runs) nearly as often — 20 of 28. Yet he has lost five of those games, and had no decision in another six.

Pitching for the worst offensive team in the majors, Hernandez has had to be nearly perfect to win; his E.R.A. in victories is 0.87. In his 18 other starts, he is 0-10 with a perfectly respectable 3.55 E.R.A.

Just for fun, let’s apply the Mussina principle and give Hernandez victories in half of those 18 starts, which is reasonable for an E.R.A. that low. Nine more victories would give Hernandez 19 with more than a month to go. The A.L. Cy Young race would be all but over.

Something to root for! Go Felix! And go Ichiro!

*The choice of 200 is of course an accident of our use of base 10, but nonetheless, a 200-hit season has become a sign of excellence, and only the greatest of hitters have 200-hit seasons with any frequency. Pete Rose had 10, the record. Those 10 occurred over fifteen seasons, from 1965 to 1979. Ty Cobb had 9, between 1907 and 1924. Ichiro is in his tenth season, and in his first nine he had over 200 hits every time. Thus, if he reaches 200 this year, he will tie Pete Rose for the most 200-hit seasons, and do so in his first ten seasons. An astonishing record. Going into today, he was second in the majors in hits for the season, with 165 (behind Josh Hamilton’s 175). Alas, he went 0 for 4 today against the Twins, so he is still at 165, through 130 games. At that rate, he will reach 205.6 hits at the end of the season (162 games).

Categories: Baseball

Pujols Triple Crown?

August 26, 2010 Leave a comment

I started a post yesterday about Albert Pujols, but didn’t get very far, and after he went 0 for 4 last night, he no longer looks quite like the triple crown winner I was going to write about. Still, let me follow through on this. It’s quite a change in topic from my previous post, about my brother-in-law’s death two nights ago. He liked baseball, though, so he won’t mind.

First, a review for those in need of it. A baseball player is said to win the triple crown when he leads his league — American or National — in three categories: batting average, home runs, RBIs. It doesn’t happen too often, especially in the National League. The last person to win the triple crown in the NL was Cardinal Joe Medwick, in 1937. Before that, there were Chuck Klein in 1933 and Rogers Hornsby in 1925 and 1922. That’s it, if we ignore pre-1900 baseball history, which we will do. Since Medwick’s triple crown, there have been five AL triple crowns: Ted Williams in 1942 and 1947, Mickey Mantle in 1956, and the two I remember best, since I was actively following baseball at the time, Frank Robinson in 1966 and Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

Back to Pujols. He hasn’t been getting much attention this season. Greatness has a way of being taken for granted. Plus, his numbers are down a bit from the norm he has established over the last decade. Yet, here he is, leading the National League in home runs and RBIs, and as of the end of two nights ago, he was batting .322 to Joey Votto’s league-leading .323. What I would have pointed out yesterday was that if you didn’t round to the third digit, you’d find they were actually closer, and had Pujols gotten one more hit over the season, he would in fact lead the league in batting. In other words, going into yesterday’s games, Pujols was a hit away from leading the National League in all three triple crown categories. For having an off season, he’s doing pretty well.

I need to point out that Joey Votto is doing pretty well too, especially after last night. While Pujols was going 0 for 4, Votto led the Reds to a wild 12-11 victory over the Giants in 12 innings, getting 4 hits in 7 at-bats, including 2 homers, and producing 4 RBIs. (I really should have gotten this post done before play started yesterday.) When the dust settled, Votto had created a gap between himself and his league mates in batting average, rising to .326 against Carlos Gonzalez’s .320 and Pujols .319. In home runs, he closed the gap on Pujols, tying Adam Dunn for 31 versus Pujols’ 33. And in RBIs, he closed in on the league lead with a total of 90 to Pujols’ 92 (while Gonzalez and Casey McGehee are way back at 84).

Maybe I should change the post’s title: National League Triple Crown? The story appears to have changed overnight. Before I panic about the title, let’s check tonight’s action. The Cardinals are in the 11th inning against the Nationals, with the score at 10-10. Tonight’s their night for a wild game. Pujols is 2 for 4, raising his average to .321, with a home run and an RBI. (The home run, by the way, is the 400th of his career.) Cincinnati has an off day. Advantage Pujols.

Yes, I know. Many baseball authorities no longer consider the traditional categories of batting average, home runs, and RBIs to measure accurately a player’s contributions at the plate. If we are interested in comparing Pujols’ season to Votto’s, we may wish to dig a bit deeper. Joel and I did that yesterday, only to discover that they are almost evenly matched by every major statistical measure, including on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+. Joel and I looked before last night’s action. After last night, Votto and Pujols were the top two in the NL in on base percentage, at .423 and .411; the top two in slugging, at .603 and .597; the top two in OPS (the sum of the previous two), at 1.026 and 1.009. I don’t have the current numbers, but of course Votto’s haven’t changed, while Pujols’ have gone up.

What we can say for sure is that both are having great seasons, and they are all but evenly matched. Perhaps neither will win the triple crown, but there would appear to be a pretty good chance that together they will occupy the top two positions in every major hitting category. I wonder how often that has happened. Unless one has a strong September while the other tails off, there will be quite a debate about which should be voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player, with many sure to say that the award should go to the one whose team wins the National League Central title. (At the moment, the Reds are in first place and the Cards are second, 3 1/2 games back.) We can return to that debate in a month. Meanwhile, watch them if you have a chance, and enjoy.

Categories: Baseball

Gary Nereim, RIP

August 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Gail’s brother Gary died just before midnight last night. I mentioned in a post a little over two weeks ago that he was comatose and on life support. A little over a week ago, in my next post, I noted that he was still with us. Well, no longer. I’m writing this at 3:00 AM, having just gotten back with Gail from the hospital, where we spent some time with him, along with Gail’s sister and her husband and Gary’s son.

A bit of background: Gary has had major health problems for a dozen years. He survived one crisis after another, but it was clear when we arrived at the hospital 17 days ago that this one was different. The way he looked, I didn’t think he’d make it through the day. He did. He would spend ten more days in the ICU, during which time he gradually improved: coming out of his coma, breathing without a respirator, and so on. He needed continued dialysis, but a week ago he was able to move out of ICU, and over the course of last week, he became more conscious and alert. Last Friday, we spent an hour and a half with him during dinner time, chatting and occasionally checking out the Yankee-Mariner game (a pitching masterpiece by Felix Hernandez and a very satisfying Mariner win). His voice would fade at times, he’d halt mid-sentence at other times, but he was communicative. One could imagine continued progress, albeit with a very limited upper bound to his potential improvement.

Alas, in addition to other chronic health problems, he had acquired a disease that, the doctors had explained to Gail the day before, would slowly kill him. On Sunday, just three days ago, with Gary able to discuss his situation with his doctors, they held a conference with him, Gail, his/Gail’s sister, and Gary’s son. The news was not good. With dialysis, he could live some months, but his disease would take over. Without dialysis, he might have a week. Fully understanding the situation, he chose the one-week option.

Monday, just 40 hours ago, the fourth sibling drove 300 miles from eastern Washington to Seattle and all four siblings had a very special final time together, along with Jessica. Gary was able to talk a little and knew what was going on. I would gladly have joined in, but I went through with the oral surgery that I had scheduled for that morning and had to spend the rest of the day at home. Yesterday — just ten hours ago — Joel and I went to the hospital, joining Gail and Jessica, who had been there all day. The four of us sat with Gary for a while. He was asleep most of the time, occasionally opening his eyes, but not communicating. We went out to dinner, then Gail and Jessica returned to spend a little more time with Gary, leaving about six hours ago. Three hours later, Gary had died. I awoke to hear Gail on the phone with Gary’s son, and soon we headed back to the hospital.

It ended quickly and peacefully. We can be thankful that Gary had those few days of mental alertness and coherence, enough for us all to talk with him, enough for him to take control and make the necessary decisions for himself.

Gary may not have lived the life he would have wished to. Indeed, he surely didn’t. But he did have a gift. He was a master butcher. An artist. There was nothing like having Gary over for a holiday. Gender stereotypes don’t work too well in this household. After Gail cooks the turkey, or the prime rib, or the leg of lamb, she can’t count on me to do the carving. That’s not one of my skills. But with Gary around, the pressure was off. He would have the honor, and the result was a sight to behold. You haven’t eaten turkey until you’ve eaten turkey carved by Gary.

I bet for Gary that was mere child’s play. His son recalled just a couple of hours ago how extraordinary Gary was with a cow. That I missed, which may be just as well. Not all art needs to be seen. But I am sure there was no one better.

In any case, Gary is now gone. We will not benefit from his artistry again, except in our memories. He was a sweet and gentle soul, and we will miss him greatly.

Categories: Family

New York Land

August 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Last night I wrote about the Burlington Coat Factory Cultural Center (better known as the Ground Zero Mosque, but note that it isn’t at ground zero and isn’t a mosque). The NYT has six letters on the subject at its editorial page today, and I chose one at random to read. The author begins with the assurance that “no reasonable person argues against religious tolerance,” but adds immediately that “it is reasonable, however, in the mosque debate to question whether or not it is fair for those of us who escaped 9/11 with our families intact to overrule the wishes of the bereaved. … Our primary concern should be the ones whose lives were changed forever on that terrible day. To put the mosque at a respectful distance from ground zero seems such a small thing for them to ask.”

I might have thought that our primary concern should be to protect the values that terrorists attacked on that terrible day, rather than meeting intolerance with intolerance. What better way to honor the memories of that day’s victims than to show that we respect the peaceful adherents of their own religion?

Let me turn to Ron Paul, conservative Republican congressman and former presidential candidate, for insight. He released a statement at his website last week calling on “sunshine patriots” to Stop Your Demagogy About The NYC Mosque! It is worth reading in full. Here’s just a portion of it:

Just think of what might (not) have happened if the whole issue had been ignored and the national debate stuck with war, peace, and prosperity. There certainly would have been a lot less emotionalism on both sides. The fact that so much attention has been given the mosque debate, raises the question of just why and driven by whom?

In my opinion it has come from the neo-conservatives who demand continual war in the Middle East and Central Asia and are compelled to constantly justify it.

They never miss a chance to use hatred toward Muslims to rally support for the ill conceived preventative wars. A select quote from soldiers from in Afghanistan and Iraq expressing concern over the mosque is pure propaganda and an affront to their bravery and sacrifice.

The claim is that we are in the Middle East to protect our liberties is misleading. To continue this charade, millions of Muslims are indicted and we are obligated to rescue them from their religious and political leaders. And, we’re supposed to believe that abusing our liberties here at home and pursuing unconstitutional wars overseas will solve our problems.

. . .

If Islam is further discredited by making the building of the mosque the issue, then the false justification for our wars in the Middle East will continue to be acceptable.

The justification to ban the mosque is no more rational than banning a soccer field in the same place because all the suicide bombers loved to play soccer.

This is all about hate and Islamaphobia. . . . Political demagoguery rules when truth and liberty are ignored.

And for a final comment, one can’t do better than Tom Tomorrow’s latest cartoon, copied above.

Categories: Politics, Religion

Burlington Coat Factory Cultural Center

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I didn’t want to believe it, but there’s no way around the fact that the post I spent some 45 minutes working on earlier tonight is lost. My browser crashed, I wondered when the last auto-save took place, and when I re-opened my blog, I found no trace of the post. Maybe I’ll try a shorter version this time around. Just the highlights.

Okay, so, the point was to urge you to look at an article by Justin Elliott that appeared a week ago at Salon, in which Elliott reviews how “ground zero mosque” fear mongering began. I had meant to write about this all of last week, and then found Frank Rich linking to it in his weekly NYT column yesterday. If you read the column, you might have seen the link. If you didn’t follow up on it, please do.

Three months ago tomorrow a college classmate of mine wrote a crazed email to our class email list, forwarding us an article by a guy I didn’t know, Robert Spencer, and prefacing it with the comment that the “idea of two massive 15 story mosques being built literally on the smoldering graves of the 3,000 Americans murdered by Islam in lower Manhattan is so revolting and appalling that the English language does not contain words powerful enough to express the disgust and outrage attendant upon this event.” This was my first sign that something was afoot, but I would never have imagined the crazed (and organized) outrage we have had to listen to since then.

I wrote back to the classmate, wondering why “Islam” was the murderer and suggesting that “it’s worth distinguishing a religion from extremist practitioners of it.” I also made reference to a NYT article from last December 9 that painted a very different picture, quoting the following passage:

The location was precisely a key selling point for the group of Muslims who bought the building in July. A presence so close to the World Trade Center, “where a piece of the wreckage fell,” said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the cleric leading the project, “sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11.”

“We want to push back against the extremists,” added Imam Feisal, 61.

While I’m at it, let me quote more from the article:

Joan Brown Campbell, director of the department of religion at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York and former general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ U.S.A., who is a supporter of Imam Feisal, acknowledged the possibility of a backlash from those opposed to a Muslim presence at ground zero.

But, she added: “Building so close is owning the tragedy. It’s a way of saying: ‘This is something done by people who call themselves Muslims. We want to be here to repair the breach, as the Bible says.’ ”


Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center, said the group would be proud to be a model for Imam Feisal at ground zero. “For the J.C.C. to have partners in the Muslim community that share our vision of pluralism and tolerance would be great,” she said.

Mr. El-Gamal agreed. “What happened that day,” he said, “was not Islam.”

In his Salon piece, Elliott provides a timeline of the fear mongering campaign, starting from the very same NYT article. The next date in his timeline is December 21. He writes:

Dec. 21, 2009: Conservative media personality Laura Ingraham interviews Abdul Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, while guest-hosting “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox. In hindsight, the segment is remarkable for its cordiality. “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it,” Ingraham says of the Cordoba project, adding at the end of the interview, “I like what you’re trying to do.”

How did things get so crazy? Elliott observes that after this Fox segment, “and despite the front-page Times story — there were no news articles on the mosque for five and a half months.” Then Pamela Geller arrived on the scene. A fanatic anti-Moslem, right-wing blogger. See the biography she provides at her blog Atlas Shrugs. She runs an organization called Stop Islamization of America, along with Robert Spencer, the author of the article my classmate sent around in late May. She and Spencer also co-wrote the book The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America, which you might have missed.

On May 6, after a New York City community board committee approved the community center, Geller’s campaign began. Within the week, Andrea Peyser had a column at the New York Post quoting Geller and promoting anti-mosque protest.

Lots of opinion makers on the right read the Post, so it’s not surprising that, starting that very day, the mosque story spread through the conservative — and then mainstream — media like fire through dry grass. Geller appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show. The Washington Examiner ran an outraged column about honoring the 9/11 dead. So did Investor’s Business Daily. Smelling blood, the Post assigned news reporters to cover the ins and outs of the Cordoba House development daily. Fox News, the Post’s television sibling, went all out.

Within a month, Rudy Giuliani had called the mosque a “desecration.” Within another month, Sarah Palin had tweeted her famous “peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate” tweet. Peter King and Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty followed suit — with political reporters and television news programs dutifully covering “both sides” of the controversy.

Geller had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

When I chastised my classmate three months ago for identifying an entire religion with terrorists and murderers, I naively failed to understand that this was exactly the point of the campaign he so willingly made himself a part of. And of course, thanks to typical mainstream media coverage of “the controversy,” giving credence to even the nuttiest ideas, we now find even Howard Dean urging “compromise.” It’s suddenly reasonable to tell all members of a religion that they should make special effort not to offend the rest of us, that they should not build on (or rather near, but with no direct sight lines of) “hallowed ground.” My goodness.

Among the many powerful pieces about this manufactured controversy, I especially appreciated Amy Davidson’s piece three days ago at the New Yorker blog, brilliantly connecting the issue to the Little League World Series now underway.

in 1955, sixty-two local Little Leagues in the state of South Carolina entered the tournament that leads to the Little League World Series. For the first time, one of them consisted of black players—the Cannon Street YMCA All Stars. None of the sixty-one other teams had a single black player, and every one of them refused to play Cannon Street. They wanted them out of the tournament. Instead, the Little League head office disqualified the sixty-one white teams.

One can imagine the pressures on the Cannon Street team and their coaches. Why were they spoiling it for all the other kids? Why were they making everyone uncomfortable? If they really cared about racial harmony and people getting along, why were they being so provocative? If they hadn’t meant to be, couldn’t they tell from the reaction that it was a mistake? Were there outside agitators involved? This wasn’t the time, or the place—couldn’t they just play somewhere else?

Davidson describes the Little League’s actions as a shining moment. “Shining moments aren’t easy. They can cost you Little League franchises; they can cost you votes. It might take years to realize how proud, or how ashamed, one is of what one did at a certain moment. (In 2002, Little League invited the surviving Cannon Street players back, and declared them South Carolina champions.) You don’t always have to stand up for one team out of sixty-two, or for your neighbors. But there are times when you should.”


Categories: Journalism, Politics, Religion

Are You Comfortable?

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Once again, I’ve sat too long on a topic I meant to write about. Maybe I’ll give it a shot before the issues fade completely from my mind. The starting point was James Surowiecki’s economics column in the August 16 issue of the New Yorker, dated a week ago but now two weeks old. In the context of Congressional discussions on whether to extend the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of the year, he asks,

who counts as rich? The Obama Administration’s answer is that you’re rich if you make more than two hundred thousand dollars a year as an individual or two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year as a household, and therefore you should have your taxes raised. Conservatives suggest that this threshold is far too low, and argue that Obama would be taxing mostly small-business owners, or the people a Fox News host has referred to as “the so-called rich,” rather than fat plutocrats. You might think this isn’t really much of a debate. An annual income of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars puts you in the top three per cent of American households, and is more than four times the national median. You’re rich, and a small tax increase isn’t going to rock your world.

Surowiecki goes on to note that “from surveys of how Americans describe themselves, most of the privileged don’t feel all that privileged.” He then reviews why this might be the case, with reasons ranging from the high cost of housing in certain parts of the country to the fact that those earning “a few hundred thousand dollars a year have done much worse than people at the very top of the ladder.”

Surowiecki proceeds to explore this last point in more detail. He observes, for instance, that “People in the ninety-fifth to the ninety-ninth percentiles of income have represented a fairly constant share of the national income for twenty-five years now. But in that period the top one per cent has seen its share of national income double … So at the same time that the rich have been pulling away from the middle class, the very rich have been pulling away from the pretty rich, and the very, very rich have been pulling away from the very rich. … there’s a yawning chasm between the professional and the plutocratic classes.”

Surowiecki concludes that the tax system should reflect this chasm, with the super-rich paying higher rates than the very rich. He concludes that doctors, lawyers, accountants — what one might call (and Matt Miller does call) the “lower upper class” — inhabit a different world from the ultra-rich and should inhabit a different tax bracket as well.

In a commentary at CNN, John Avlon made much the same point two weeks ago, perhaps influenced by Surowiecki’s article, though he doesn’t refer to it. Avlon writes,

There is another issue . . . beyond the increasing gap between rich and poor in the United States.
It is the gap between the “super rich” — who really do have more money than they know what to do with — and what might be called the “working wealthy,” who are taxed as though they’re rich enough to able to give away half their money.

These are individuals whose household income might bring them into the top tax bracket of $250,000 a year but who, with two parents working, might still find themselves struggling to stay in the stability of the upper-middle class in the expensive urban areas where they often work.
Much of the anger about the scheduled sunset of the Bush tax cuts for the increase in top-bracket taxes comes from this productive group of Americans.

The super rich are looking for charitable donations to deduct from their taxes each year, while the working wealthy are still trying to pay all their bills. But they are taxed at the same rate as the private jet set (what a few years ago might been called the Bernie Madoff crowd).

Avlon concludes with mention of “the growing gaps in our society, not just between the rich and poor, but between the super rich, the working wealthy and the forgotten middle class.”

At the Atlantic, Derek Thompson replied to Avlon’s piece, granting that “it can be challenging to put two kids through private school and pay a mortgage on $250,000 a year in an expensive urban area,” but disagreeing “that those families’ experience should guide our tax policy.” He ends up drawing the same conclusion as Surowiecki:

Avalon’s [sic] piece strikes me as an argument for more income brackets. If we acknowledge the country is getting ever more stratified between the wealthy, the super-wealthy and the sweet-lord-they-must-use-their-money-as-napkins wealthy, why not build an attic on top of income tax system to catch extra money at higher rates?

Thompson also takes exception to Avlon’s description of the struggling earners of $250,000 as upper middle class: “I know it’s polite to say we’re all middle class until our yearly income adds a seventh digit, but really. If the 95th percentile is the middle class, does that make the median income earner upper-lower class? Or is America’s middle class more like the stuffing in a three-story Oreo?”

Thompson has a link to a very useful document from Tax Policy Center, from which we can see that about .4% of the population earns over $1 million, whereas another .7% are in the $500,000 to a million range and 3.9% are in the $200,000 to $500,000 range.

Can someone really make $250,000 and be middle class? A week ago, at Andrew Sullivan’s blog site, The Daily Dish, Sullivan’s assistant Patrick Appel quoted from Thompson’s post and then addressed this question. (Sullivan is on vacation and his staff members are running the show.) Appel posits, “families tend to socialize with families who make a little more and a little less than they do. A family earning $250,000 a year likely has a number of friends that make around that amount. They probably also know a number of families making $300,000 to $400,000 a year and number of families making $100,000 to $200,000 a year. Even if an American is in the 95th percentile nationally, they are likely to feel middle-class in relation to peers.” A debate ensued among readers, which you can follow by going over to The Daily Dish.

The notion that we’re all middle class was impressed upon me very early through a joke my father used to tell. It’s a familiar joke, one that could perhaps work in any culture, but one that has come to be identified with American Jewish culture. Indeed, if one does a search on the joke, one finds that it is variously attributed to Henny Youngman, or told with instructions that the punchline should be spoken with a Yiddish accent, or written with Yiddish-accented words (“vell” for “well”) thrown in. Underlying the joke is the notion that one needs a euphemism for being wealthy, it being somehow unseemly for someone to actually admit to being rich. The particular euphemism used in the joke (and so, the euphemism I learned as a child) is that of “being comfortable.”

As for the joke, well, it goes something like this. A man (a Jewish man in some tellings, or more explicitly, a Mr. Cohen) is walking across the street when he is hit by a car. The driver (or perhaps a passing policeman) rushes out to the man, who is lying on the street, puts his sweater under the man’s head, and asks, “Are you comfortable?” The man replies, “Eh. I make a living.”

That’s my understanding of the issues. And yes, I make a living.

Categories: Economics, Humor

Arnaud Fleurent-Didier

August 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Seven hours ago, I hadn’t heard of Arnaud Fleurent-Didier. I still know close to nothing about him. But he caught my ear this morning while I was listening to the internet feed of WFMU. As you may know, WFMU is a listener-supported radioi station in Jersey City, New Jersey. It describes itself as follows:

WFMU’s programming ranges from flat-out uncategorizable strangeness to rock and roll, experimental music, 78 RPM Records, jazz, psychedelia, hip-hop, electronica, hand-cranked wax cylinders, punk rock, gospel, exotica, R&B, radio improvisation, cooking instructions, classic radio airchecks, found sound, dopey call-in shows, interviews with obscure radio personalities and notable science-world luminaries, spoken word collages, Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks in languages other than English as well as Country and western music.

All of the station’s programming is controlled by individual DJs and is not beholden to any type of station-wide playlist or rotation schedule. Experimentation, spontaneity and humor are among the station’s most frequently noted distinguishing traits. WFMU does not belong to any existing public radio network, and close to 100% of its programming originates at the station.

I had WFMU on in the background as I read the latest news when I realized that the station was playing some guy singing in French, and that the music didn’t sound like any recognizable genre of pop, American or French. I started paying more attention, and meanwhile I got the guy’s name from WFMU’s list of what was playing, looked him up, found an extremely abbreviated description in French at wikipedia and a somewhat more extended discussion at an Air France site. An excerpt: “French musician-singer Arnaud Fleurent-Didier was born on June 26, 1974. . . . His impeccable 3-piece suit and air of a fashion model straying into the world of French chanson might be seen as pretentious. His UV-induced tan and his little songs could be taken for megalomania. But nothing could be further from the truth. Arnaud Fleurent-Didier has class – natural and sincere. And his album proves it. The songs follow each other like the pages of a secret notebook finally revealed. With finely honed irony, he confides his worries, doubts, questions, dreams, highs and lows. How he appears in the eyes of others, his need for public recognition; his failures; his desires; to change professions. be interviewed in Les Inrocks, make the cover of Magic. Ambition: In a sometimes hesitant, fragile voice he conveys all that.” And then there’s his website, which has a video in which he talks about his latest album, La Réproduction.

It soon emerged that he was actually on WFMU live as part of a several-day visit to New York. After he played a couple of songs, the DJ interviewed him. Maybe he is pretentious. I don’t know. But he’s interesting, and I am curious to hear more of his music. He’s appearing tonight at the Museum of Modern Art as part of their Music for MoMA Nights series. As explained at the website, “Music for MoMA Nights in August features a range of innovative and popular French songwriters, in celebration of the exhibition Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917. Each artist in Hear France has struck a conscious balance between tradition and invention. Most draw on various aspects of the chanson heritage and place a strong emphasis on literate lyrics. All have devised personal ways to construct modern works with no hints of quaintness. Hear France offers a rare opportunity for New York audiences to sample today’s French music scene in a lively setting.” As for Fleurent-Didier, the site explains that he

is a multi-instrumentalist with a taste for 1970s synthesized sounds and an aesthetic that owes much to both Michel Legrand and the band Air (with which he has performed). He has released his music for ten years under a variety of monikers. The song “France-Culture,” from his latest album, has become a bit of a polarizing manifesto. An almost overly literate soliloquy, it indicts his parents’ generation for its failure to pass on cultural knowledge and real values. While the music is solidly anchored in its time, the lyrics are a bridge to pre-1968 preoccupations and are reminiscent of the literary dialogues of early Eric Rohmer movies. The mixture of real emotion and preciousness of expression is quintessentially French and disarmingly personal.

However good his music is, he is at least interesting as a window into contemporary French pop culture. Maybe I’ll buy his recent album. I can order it from Amazon, but there are no reviews at the Amazon site. Ah, I just realized, if I want reviews, I should go to the French Amazon site. Here. Mixed. Next step — I’ll ask my niece and nephew what they think, assuming they even know of him.

Categories: Music