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Filkins on Afghanistan

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Whenever I want to get depressed about our permanent war in Afghanistan, I know what to do. Just read Dexter Filkins’ latest. There’s his astonishing book, The Forever War, and there are his regular reports in the NYT. But he has left the NYT for the New Yorker, and today his first New Yorker piece appeared.

I’d prefer to wait until we get the print issue to read it, but everywhere I turn in the blogopshere, I find reference to it and quotes from it. I may as well join in. The article describes a scandal in which

dozens of Afghan leaders and businessmen … , collectively, accepted tens of millions of dollars in gifts and bribes—some sources say as much as a hundred million dollars—from executives at Kabul Bank. The scandal is perhaps the most far-reaching in the nine years since Karzai took power. …

American officials say that Kabul Bank’s largesse included members of parliament and almost anyone whose silence would allow bank executives to embark on a spree of buying, lending, and looting. In addition, some former and current Afghan officials say, Kabul Bank became an unofficial arm of the Karzai government, bribing parliamentarians in order to secure votes for its legislative agenda.

The tens of millions of dollars that have, according to investigators, been doled out by Kabul Bank to Afghan officials are part of at least seven hundred million dollars determined to be missing from the bank.

You can read the details in the article. But here’s the key passage that has been widely quoted today:

Nine years into the American-led war, it’s no longer enough to say that corruption permeates the Afghan state. Corruption, by and large, is the Afghan state. On many days, it appears to exist for no other purpose than to enrich itself. Graft infests nearly every interaction between the Afghan state and its citizens, from the police officers who demand afghani notes to let cars pass through checkpoints to the members of Karzai’s government who were given land in the once empty quarter of Sherpur, now a neighborhood of grandiose splendor, where homes sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bribes feed bribes: if an Afghan aspires to be a district police officer, he must often pay a significant amount, around fifty thousand dollars, to his boss, who is often the provincial police chief. He needs to earn back the money; hence the shakedown of ordinary Afghans. In this way, the Afghan government does not so much serve the people as it preys on them. Last year, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the hundred-and-seventy-sixth most corrupt country out of a hundred and seventy-eight, surpassed only by Somalia and Myanmar. “It’s a vertically integrated criminal enterprise,” one American official told me.

Really, what are we doing there? Why has Obama made this his war? Is there any way he will see fit to find a genuine exit strategy?

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Categories: Politics, War

The Routes of Man

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Last February, I read reviews a week apart of two new travel books and thought both would be good reading on a trip to the east coast I would be taking during the first week of March: Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World and Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory. But which to bring?

As I explained in a post last April, I bought, and brought, both. That’s one of the benefits of the Kindle. Weight and space aren’t issues. Unfortunately, as I also mentioned, one of the Kindle’s weaknesses is its poor display of maps, and what’s a travel book without maps? Using a Kindle for such books is inevitably a compromise.

Once I boarded the plane for my trip, I immediately began to read Conover’s book. It has six chapters, each describing a different trip, each originating as an independent magazine article. Between chapters are shorter pieces in which Conover reflects on roads. The various parts don’t quite cohere into a single book, but they are individually engrossing and together offer a fascinatingly varied assemblage.

For whatever reason, I read the first two pieces during my trip, started a third, and on my return put the book aside. As other books came and went, I kept meaning to get back to it. While reading Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia in December, I decided the time had come. But first I had to read the new books I had pre-ordered that would be coming out earlier this month, Robert Crais’ The Sentry and Paul Clemens’ Punching Out. Which I did. With those books done, last week I picked up my Kindle and returned to the road between Mombasa and Kampala. Conover had joined a trucker to learn about the commercial traffic between Kenya and Uganda, following up on a visit years earlier in which he had investigated the spread of AIDS by truckers.

I wrote about the first chapter last April. It finds Conover “tracking of the source of mahogany being used for expensive furniture in New York, from New York backwards to the Peruvian coast, over the Andes, and down into the Amazon basin.” I would say, having finished the book, that that was one of my two favorites. The second chapter describes some villages in the Himalayas that the Indian government is slowly building a road to, and that in the meantime use the traditional winter route down a frozen river through a magnificent gorge to reach larger towns.

The fourth chapter is by far the most powerful. In his matter of fact manner, Conover describes the main north-south road through the West Bank, connecting all the major cities from Nablus to Hebron, now broken up by a myriad of Israeli checkpoints. The political issues of occupation and Israeli settler expansion are not discussed in any great detail by Conover himself, but rather laid out through the eyes and voices of Israelis and Palestinians, with Conover switching back and forth in perspective, and drivers, between Israeli military forces and ordinary Palestinians.

We get to relax a bit in the next chapter, an account of a tourist trip in China with a group of car owners traveling together under the auspices of an auto club. The intensity returns in the closing chapter in which no great driving journey is taken. We just stay in Lagos, making short journeys through a seemingly impenetrable, hopelessly crowded city. Anyone reading the chapter may be less than enthusiastic about booking a trip to Nigeria. I remember a delegation from the University of Port Harcourt visiting the university five years ago and, as part of their itinerary, meeting with a few of us for an hour in the dean’s office. They invited us to visit and, when I asked, assured us that all was safe, contrary to what I had been reading some days before. Safe or not, Lagos seems to be beautifully situated. Maybe, some day, … .

Categories: Books

Politics Catchup

January 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Russell Pearce

I hope you weren’t expecting me to live blog the State of the Union address Tuesday night. (Were we really in DC just a year ago, watching the presidential motorcade head from the White House to the Capitol for the address from our hotel window?) Heck, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it. Not after Obama appointed Bill Daley as chief of staff and Jeff Immelt as head of the new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. What is this, a Republican administration? Okay, I know, Daley is a Democrat — he is a Daley after all. But what I see is a continued move to the right, and I’m in no mood to applaud that.

It helps to remember that there is no Republican Party anymore, not one in the old sense, so Obama may as well fill the void. Who can make sense of the modern Republican Party? Is it an advance guard of aliens from another planet? (Michele Bachmann certainly played the part in her remarks following the State of the Union.) That would be ironic, given their opposition to illegal aliens. Go figure.

Which brings us to Arizona, ground zero of their invasion. bmaz had a post on emptywheel’s blog today that captured a bit of the madness afoot in the state. He devotes the post to “the filing in the Arizona legislature of twin bills at the end of this week attacking the automatic citizenship granted to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants under the 14th Amendment.” I recommend reading the post in full. Below are excerpts.

While Arizona may be the test lab, it is certainly not necessarily the originator for these discriminatory and bigoted efforts. The “father” of the measures, leader and vocal mouthpiece for them in the Arizona legislature is State Senator Russell Pearce, newly crowned President of the state senate. Pearce worked off the template written by national movement conservative Kris Kobach for SB 1070, and the attempt to blow up the 14th Amendment birth citizenship guarantee is also being pushed by national extreme right wing movement conservatives such as Rand Paul and David Vitter.

But the point man and patron saint of anti-immigration hate in Arizona is indeed President of the Arizona Senate Russell Pearce, a former top deputy and confidant of the pernicious Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio. …

So how did this two bit back bencher, who only came to the legislature because he was terminated as the state director of the Motor Vehicle Department for malfeasance in tampering with department records, come to be the most powerful man in the Arizona legislature? The old fashioned way, money, lobbyists and a push from the movement conservative national political machine. In short, the craziness of the ever more extreme and immigrant fear mongering national Republican party caught up to Russell Pearce’s local innate bigotry. And the big money and high powered lobbyists now backing and fueling Pearce is the story of this post.

Who were these people bankrolling and gleefully toasting Pearce and his in your face brand of bigotry? It is all too easy to pin this movement on the supposedly grass roots “Tea Party” movement. Except the truth is the “Tea Party” is not particularly grass roots in the first place and instead is an outgrowth of mainstream GOP lobbyists, and this group of luminaries comprise the monied elite of the traditional Republican party in Arizona, not to mention more than a few national interests. The hate is quite mainstream and is the work product of big money and big political lobbying operations.

… as a native Arizonan, I can assure you these are the highest levels of movers and shakers in the business and legal world here. They are NOT the “grass roots”, and do NOT represent the “power of the people”. No, they are, quite instead, the people with the power. They would surely not want it, but should be known far and wide for the bigotry, hate and disrepute they have encouraged and bankrolled for the state of Arizona. It is their handiwork Russell Pearce fronts for.

And nothing brought the ugly face of Arizona painted by Russell Pearce and his merry band of backers to light more than the horrendous carnage of the Giffords shooting less than twelve hours after their party concluded. The picture painted of Arizona in the aftermath was a hideous one of bigotry, hate and guns run amok.

Categories: Politics

Catching Up

January 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Has over a week really gone by since my last post? Well, I can explain. Not that I need to. Basically, it’s been a busy week on the work front, starting with a dinner meeting last Sunday evening that was the initial event of an intensive 48-hour review process I was chairing. I’ll confess, that dinner was at Luc, which I wrote about last June, so I hardly have anything to complain about. Then again, I wasn’t complaining, was I?

Luc is the more casual younger brother to neighboring Rover’s, the fine French restaurant I have written about several times, both owned by famed local chef Thierry Rautureau. It opened just last May and we’ve had dinner there three times, breakfast just once. For my business last week, we had two work dinners to plan for, with a list of recommended restaurants provided to us, most of which were near the university and some pricing guidelines. I was studying the list when I suddenly realized that Luc would be perfect. And so it was. Simple food beautifully prepared.

For the record, I started with the evening’s special salad, frisée with dried cherries, and followed with the grilled pork chop, prepared with a sage mustard rub and plated atop some greens and a few small roasted potato chunks. We passed on dessert, what with everyone being quite full and with one of us having flown in from a locale in the eastern time zone and being more than ready to go back to her hotel and go to sleep.

Dinner the next night was at Ivar’s Salmon House. I was hesitant to select it, even though it is the ultimate place near the university (if not the city) to take out-of-towners to, or maybe because of that. Indeed, on my first visit to Seattle, in 1975, I ate dinner there. And it’s where I took my family on the eve of our wedding. So what can go wrong? Nothing. And nothing did. I had the foraged green salad and the alder grilled wild Alaskan sockeye salmon, maple glazed over a butternut squash hash with pancetta, onion, and spinach. Yum.

I didn’t intend this post to focus on food, but as long as that’s where it is heading, I would be remiss if I failed to mention how well we’ve been eating at home this month. I wish I could remember all the great meals Gail and Joel have prepared. Joel has been taking an active role in the kitchen, assisting Gail or preparing dishes of his own design. I’m not much of a cheesecake eater, but I loved the cheesecake he made Wednesday to accompany Gail’s prime rib. It had a macaroon crust made from scratch and a filling made with mascarpone and Meyer lemons. The prime rib was pretty good too, as were the black bean burgers Gail made the night before.

Thursday dinner wasn’t so fancy, but was still pretty special. Joel made good on a promised holiday gift of a month ago, ordering Vienna Beef hot dogs from Chicago for overnight delivery (on dry ice). They arrived Thursday. He selected the Vienna Beef Mini Pretzeldog & Mini Bageldog Combo, described at the Vienna Beef website as follows:

A snack lover’s dream! The Vienna Beef Mini Pretzeldog and Mini Bageldog Combo gives you the best of both worlds. There is no need to choose! The 2 pounds Combo gives you 1 pound of each and the 4 pound combo gives you 2 pounds of each! Perfect for your next party or family gathering.

For a limited time: get 1 bottle of mustard with 2 lbs order of minies, and 2 bottles of mustard with 4 lbs of minies

I’m not sure about that pluralization of mini. And we really didn’t need two more bottles of Plochman’s yellow mustard. But we needed those pretzeldogs and minidogs. For sure.

So, should I finish up the week? Okay. As some of you know, Friday night is Northlake night in our household. Northlake Tavern & Pizza House. Especially if Russ is around. Gail went there decades ago, before I knew her, when she lived with Jessica and a roommate not far from the university. When I first knew Gail, I couldn’t believe she liked to go there. For one thing, it’s a bar, and there was all the cigarette smoke. For another, its pizza wasn’t my idea of pizza. Over the years, Gail came around to my idea of what good pizza is, thanks in part to our year in Princeton and joint discovery of the greatest pizza place in the country, Red Moon Pizza on Route 1 between Princeton and Trenton. On many a Friday, we got into the car and drove to the otherwise character-less strip mall that was home to Red Moon, becoming regulars. I suppose we stood out, what with Gail’s accent and a small girl and baby boy in tow. After pizza, we’d walk down to Crazy Eddie to check out the electronics. That was always fun. And we knew how to have fun.

But back to Northlake. Oddly enough, in recent years I have come to appreciate that their pizza is pretty darn good too, especially if you don’t compare it to real pizzas, those of the thin-crust family, thinking of it instead as its own food group. Plus, there’s good beer. And most of all, there’s Russ, their most important customer, whose coattails we get to ride on. As Friends of Russ, we’re special customers too, even on days when he’s missing. Fortunately, Friday was not such a day. Russ was there, in part because he called me late in the afternoon to confirm that we were planning to go, which we were — Gail, me, and Joel too. Great evening.

Yesterday was leftover day, with all that good prime rib waiting to be put into sandwiches, which we ate before watching the first movie we rented in many months: The Kids Are All Right. I hadn’t paid attention to the Oscar nominations earlier in the week, so I didn’t even know it had been nominated for best picture, best actress (Annette Bening), and best supporting actor (Mark Ruffalo). I loved it. Gail didn’t. I can’t figure out why. For one, she was upset with the plight of one of the characters. I couldn’t convince her that her anger was a strength of the movie. One highlight: part way through the movie, the son is wearing a t-shirt with a map of something on it. A familiar map. Nantucket! I stopped the movie and kept going back and forth frame by frame to see the shirt better, until we could read the wording above the map — Nantucket Island. Boy I miss it.

I might have gotten an earlier start on blogging today if I didn’t spend half the day at work, writing a draft report as a follow up to my meetings earlier last week. And there’s another reason for my blogging absence over the last week, the fact that when I finally had free time in mid week, I picked up a book I had started last year and got re-engaged, finishing it after midnight Friday night/Saturday morning. Of course, when I say I picked up a book, I am being metaphorical. What I really did is pick up my Kindle and click on the book to see where I had left off. More on that in a post tomorrow, the post I thought I was going to write tonight. And I have still another post to write about my new Kindle, and my new MacBook Air, and the failure of my two-month-old iMac. Another day.

Categories: Food, Life, Restaurants

Punching Out

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment

I mentioned last Monday that I had just finished Robert Crais’ crime novel The Sentry and that I was expecting the next morning to get Paul Clemens’ new book Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant on my Kindle the next morning. It is, as I noted, a sequel to Clemens’ superb Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir, which I had read, and written about, just over a year and a half ago.

The new book arrived Tuesday as scheduled, and I finished reading it last night. It did not have the emotional intensity of Clemens’ memoir, which so beautifully evokes life in a working class family in Detroit, with an especially powerful portrait of his father. And, as Dwight Garner noted in his review of the book in Wednesday’s NYT, the title is misleading, since the book is about not the final year of the plant’s operation but the dismantling of the plant in the year following its closing. Nonetheless, Clemens once again writes with passion about the loss of the manufacturing working class in this country.

The plant in question is the Budd Company’s Detroit plant, which was bought in the 1970s by the German giant Krupp, which in turn merged with Thyssen, so that when the plant closed, it was owned by ThyssenKrupp Budd. As soon as I read that, just a few pages in, I realized I knew the plant. I have written about our Detroit sojourns elsewhere. I’ll be brief here.

In June 1999, we made a short trip to Detroit on the way to New York in order to see the Tigers play in Tiger Stadium before it closed. We did much more, including visiting the great building that once was GM headquarters, the Motown Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Greenfield Village.

Our first outing, though, after arriving at our hotel and eating dinner, was a drive eastward on Jefferson Avenue, paralleling the river, to get a taste of the area. This was just past the middle of June, the sun set late that far west in the time zone, and so we had lots of light for a long, leisurely drive. And what a drive it was! The surroundings got worse and worse as we headed east. And suddenly there was this immense industrial plant that I couldn’t identify, seemingly filling our view to the north. And just as suddenly, few blocks further east, we were in a different universe, having left Detroit behind for the wealthy Grosse Pointe suburbs.

Two years ago, when Gail and I were back in Detroit, we took a similar drive, returning from the Grosse Pointes, on Mack, which parallels Jefferson to the north and forms the northern border of the plant. This time I saw the ThyssenKrupp sign. I didn’t know it, but the dismantling described by the book was then nearing its end. All I knew was that it looked like an industrial wasteland. In some small way, this allowed me to imagine I was there as I read Clemens’ account.

Here’s one representative passage from the book, taken from Clemens’ description of a conversation he had with Duane, an electrical foreman brought in to dismantle machinery that would be shipped to Mexico and rebuilt.

There was reverence in his voice. . . . Duane was a product of Detroit’s once-extensive system of Catholic schools, and he liked the idea — an error that wasn’t mistaken — that the Budd plant was a sacred site.

“My dead relatives would be honored that I’m here taking this place apart,” he said. “It’s a crowning jewel. We’re not the king of England, but it’s something they passed on, and it’s something” — the disassembly work — “that needs to be done. You can’t leave this here, to rot in history. There’s still life left in these machines. It’s real important that they keep doing what they do, because a lot of people gave a lot of sweat and equity that has gone into these machines. You can’t measure it. You can’t measure the lives, you can’t measure the lunches, the allowances, that people were able to give their kids.” It’s “what these kinds of machines do,” he said. Duane hoped that Mexican families might now benefit as much as his own had. “It’s why we’re taking such care getting this thing out of here.”

Unions, protectionism versus free trade, the move of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico, Brazil, and beyond — these issues and more hover in the background as one reads Clemens’ meditation on the decline of an industry, a city, and a nation’s working class.

Categories: Automobiles, Books, Economy

Sentence of the Week

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment

On turning to the Seattle Times’ sports section Wednesday morning, I saw a piece about Seattle Mariner outfielder Milton Bradley that opened with the following astonishing sentence:

A former major-league general manager said Tuesday night there would have to be specific language in Milton Bradley’s contract for his arrest on suspicion of making a felony threat to alter his deal.

Have you read it? Can you make sense of it? Do you have the impression that Bradley was arrested for threatening to alter his deal, and that such a threat is apparently felonious? Is there any other way to interpret this sentence without additional information?

On reading further into the article, I was eventually able to figure out what the writer, Geoff Baker, was trying to convey. Here are the issues:

1. Bradley allegedly made a criminal threat the day before against a woman and was arrested.

2. The Mariners owe Bradley $12 million for the coming season.

3. The Mariners wouldn’t comment on the situation, following club policy.

4. Baker, in need of some further insight about how the team might handle Bradley’s contract, contacted a former GM, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

5. The issue arose in their conversation of whether the Mariners would be able to forgo paying Bradley salary that was guaranteed under his contract: “The former GM . . . said the language needed to convert contracts from ‘guaranteed’ to ‘non-guaranteed’ is very specific. ‘It depends on the guarantee language,’ he said. ‘If the guarantee language includes a felony conviction, it allows the contract to be converted to a non-guaranteed form if that player is convicted of a felony.'”

It’s now possible to return to the opening sentence and see that Baker was, perhaps prematurely, explaining that Bradley’s deal with the Mariners might be alterable in light of the alleged felony, if language in the contract addressed such a scenario. Of course, the location within the sentence of the phrase “to alter his deal” is awkward at best, but one can parse it once one has enough information. The sentence needs re-writing, but more, it needs re-locating within the article. Even the fact that it opens with mention of a former GM is utterly mysterious until later.

I am relieved, in any case, to know that threatening to alter one’s contract is not a felony.

Categories: Baseball, Journalism, Language

Civility and Honesty, II

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Last Monday, in a late response on my part to Obama’s speech in Tucson (not that anyone was waiting for my response), I wrote:

I don’t wish to violate [its] spirit, which is perhaps one reason I have been mute for the past week. We’re all being told we need to be civil. Okay, I’m being civil.

But listen, being civil doesn’t mean being quiet. Being civil doesn’t mean you can’t point out errors, lies, and falsehoods. . . .

Sure, let’s be civil. But let’s be honest too.

I discovered yesterday that Rick Perlstein was my ahead of me in making this very point, and making it better. Last November, just after the election, he wrote in The Daily Beast:

We live in a mendocracy.

As in: rule by liars.

Political scientists are going crazy crunching the numbers to uncover the skeleton key to understanding the Republican victory last Tuesday.

But the only number that matters is the one demonstrating that by a two-to-one margin likely voters thought their taxes had gone up, when, for almost all of them, they had actually gone down. Republican politicians, and conservative commentators, told them Barack Obama was a tax-mad lunatic. They lied. The mainstream media did not do their job and correct them. The White House was too polite—”civil,” just like Obama promised—to say much. So people believed the lie. From this all else follows.

And it was all too predictable.

[snip]

When one side breaks the social contract, and the other side makes a virtue of never calling them out on it, the liar always wins. When it becomes “uncivil” to call out liars, lying becomes free.

So you find him at a press conference, the day after the midterm elections, saying with all apparent sincerity that he agreed the majority of Americans participated in a “fundamental rejection of his agenda”—who, that is, implicitly believe he raised their taxes.

When he really lowered them.

[Hat tip: tomtomorrow, who tweeted yesterday about a blog post by digby that in turn quoted Perlstein, and who a couple of minutes later tweeted the Perlstein quote that I have italicized above.]

Categories: Politics