Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Radical Islam

I keep hearing conservative critics lambasting President Obama again and again over his refusal to say the words “radical Islam” when talking about terrorism. 

The phrase has become a talisman of the right, a magic charm that if uttered, so it seems, would alone deal a huge blow to Daesh and its brainwashed followers. For me, it's hard to imagine how that particular combination of words coming from Obama’s mouth would strike a lot of fear into the heart of bloodthirsty miscreants in Raqqa. Seriously. It seems drone strikes would be more effective.

Anyway, I saw in a comment thread somewhere on the Internet recently what I thought was a very insightful comment (not “incite-ful”, which is rare for the Internet).

The commentator pointed out that the word “radical” in “radical Islam” can be seen as either a descriptor or an intensifier. As a descriptor, it clarifies what kind of Islam we’re talking about, as in the same way “fundamentalist Christianity” denotes a more conservative form of that diverse religious belief. "Radical Islam" is thus differentiated from, let’s say, mainstream Islam.

On the other hand, “radical” used as an intensifier is a whole other kettle of fish. In this sense, it highlights some essential nature of the word that follows.

The Internet commentator offered an example from the Cold War, a time when many conservatives in the US railed against “Godless Communism”. By using this choice phrase, the John Birch Society and its ilk certainly didn't intend to single out the unbelieving Communists for abuse, compared to those saintly Christian Communists. “Godlessness” was understood to be an inherent part of Communism, baked in to the Marxist cake, so to speak. Tacking on the word “Godless” just ensured that no right-thinking American overlooked this little detail.

The astute Internet commentator went on to say he or she suspected that folks who are most obsessed with the term “radical Islam” are using it like the McCarthite reactionaries of old did. That is, they see all Islam as radical by definition, and they want to make sure everyone knows it. 

Judging by how much anti-Islamic blather I see on the Internet scoffing at the very existence of “moderate Islam”, I have to think the commentator is onto something.

No wonder President Obama wisely declines to play along with that game.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rio Games

The Summer Olympics finally came to a close in Rio this past weekend, with greatly disappointing results for the Finns. All and all, Finland garnered only one medal, for women’s boxing, and even that was only a bronze. This is a bit shocking, considering how there were reasonably promising hopes for medals in some other events, mainly sailing and javelin throw.

It is, in fact, Finland’s poorest result in its entire Olympic history, which is almost a decade older than the country itself. Finland, at the time a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, first took part in the Games in 1908, competing as an entity separate from Russia. I guess this is analogous to the way that – which was news to me – Puerto Rico participates under its own flag, though the Caribbean island is actually part of the United States.

The dearth of Finnish medals in Rio is a shame, especially since it's always seemed to me that the Olympics figures quite prominently in Finnish national identity, at least more so than for the average American. This is, after all, the land of the runners Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren.

Nurmi, the “Flying Finn”, was the winner of 12 Olympic medals over the course of his career, not too shabby in the 1920s. Some half-century later, Lasse Viren earned a total of five medals, four of them gold, during his two Olympic appearances. He famously fell in the 1972 games in Munich during the 10,000-meter final, but was amazingly able to overtake the pack and win the race. Coincidentally, the same thing happened in Rio with Britain’s Mo Farah, who also managed to win his 10K race after tumbling in the 10th lap.

Now, the era of Viren and other greats seems to be receding, no disrespect to the athletes of today. No doubt a lot of introspection has already begun over why Finland’s result fell so short, especially compared to the remarkable 15 medals that similarly sized Denmark won.

The last time Finland could boast a summer-game medal count in the double-digits was the 1984 Los Angeles games, when it brought home a full dozen Olympic medallions. Since then, Finland has averaged only three or four. That record might now be trending even a bit lower. As I said, that would be a shame.

Luckily, the Americans in Rio did spectacularly much better, based on all the news I gleamed from Twitter and CNN. (And I thought, according to Trump, the US "doesn’t win anymore”.) Watching the different events themselves on TV was a bit hit and miss for us, due to all kinds of scheduling complications, so we didn’t end up watching much of the Games this time. 

But there was once a time when we got to see the Games in person.

The Summer Olympics of 1996 where held in Atlanta, a mere 70 or so miles from my home town. Since we were making visits to my parents every summer in those days, a chance to go to the Olympics was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

But deciding which events to see was tricky. As I recall, we had to place orders for tickets over a year in advance. For each day of the event, you could request up to three events, in order of preference, with a hope of getting tickets for at least one of them. Since we felt we couldn’t be assured of getting even one event for any particular day, we took a scattershot approach and tried to spread our ticket buying over a 7-day period, not necessarily expecting (or, considering the costs, even hoping) to get something every day. 

For two of those days, our first choice was kayaking. The whitewater slalom competition took place on the Ocoee River, just across the state line in Tennessee and not far from my parents’ place. Our other first choices were one day of mountain biking and two days each of athletics and dressage.

I’m sure that at the time my wife had to explain to me what dressage was. The name itself doesn’t give much of a clue that it involves horses performing a precise and intricate (and slow paced) routine. 

It’s an impressive sport, considering the amount of control needed by both horse and rider to carry out such complicated moves, especially since I can’t imagine making a horse do anything myself. But as a girl, my wife had done a lot of horseback riding, even competing in jumping and dressage, so she better understood the appeal of the sport than I did.

For our second choices we picked athletics, gymnastics, horse jumping and, again, dressage. Third choices included tennis, basketball, baseball and cycling. At least, I think there were our actual preferences. This is all based on info in a computer file that has survived many PC upgrades and several disk crashes to remain intact two decades later deep, deep in my current hard drive – kind of amazing in itself.

In the end, we got about half of our first choices and one of the our second. Sadly, no kayaking. But we did get mountain biking and two days of track and field at Turner Field. And a full three days of dressage. I think we underestimated how much easier the dressage tickets were to get.

I don’t remember much about the competitions themselves, more about the atmosphere and the venues. Let’s face it, sitting in a big stadium, you see a lot less of what’s going on down on the field than the average TV viewer.

At the mountain biking race, that sport’s Olympic debut, I recall the conspicuous turnout of among the spectators of Norwegians, easy identifiable as Norwegian sport fans are around the world by their fondness for national flags and cow bells.

Funnily, I have only the barest memory of the dressage competition, or even the venue. But I do recall a little criminal activity that I engaged in related to the sport.

We had gotten a bit more dressage tickets than we expected, six all together, in reality about double the number we wanted. So, we decided to try and sell the extra and recoup some money.

We showed up at the Georgia International Horse Park outside Atlanta, which served as the venue for both dressage and mountain biking, just after the women's bike race. Feeling a bit awkward, I stood near the parking lot holding up our tickets trying to get the attention of all the off-road bike fans heading for their cars. Some young guys, upon hearing I was selling dressage tickets, said something like “Dressage? Dude, you’ve got the wrong crowd here!”

Someone else helpfully pointed out there were police in the parking lot nearby and suggested I should move further away before I got arrested for scalping.

Scalping? I had not even considered that what I was doing was remotely illegal. First of all, I was selling the tickets at face value. Being a poor excuse for a capitalist, I wasn’t trying to make a profit, just break even. 

To be honest, I don’t even understand why ticket scalping is a crime, especially in free-enterprising America. People sell things to other people on the secondary market all the time. Why should tickets to sporting events be any different?

Of course, arguing these points to an arresting officer might not be very productive. So, thankful for the tip, I moved deeper into the crowd of mountain bike fans moving toward me. I remember in particular a suburban mom who was put into a tough spot by my offer. She was accompanied by two or three teenage girls who practically squealed when they saw what kind of tickets I was selling.

I seem to recall the poor woman was able to resist their pleas. In any case, I managed to offload all the extra tickets eventually to someone and escape the clutches of the law. 

And to this day that small triumph remains my own personal best during an Olympics. 

Who knows? I might be somewhere in that crowd. 
Turner Stadium during the Atlanta Olympics. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Trump's Sacrifice

In the curious case of Donald Trump’s fight with Khizr Khan, the Muslim American who lost a son in the Iraq War, Trump keeps digging in his heels, and digging himself deeper into a hole of nastiness.

In response to Mr. Khan’s assertion, in his passionate speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, that Trump has “sacrificed nothing and no one” for America, Trump tried to claim that his hard work and “tremendous success” in building his business was somehow comparable to giving the life of your son.

Who knew that making tons of money could be both fabulous and a horrible misfortune. Should the US bestow a medal on Trump for his brave, opulent sacrifice? Something in the shape of a gold-plated toilet fixture perhaps?

Anyway, in his supreme cluelessness Trump has completely blown his response to the Khans. He’s shown no understanding, no empathy, no magnanimity. He has, however, shown his true character.

Or maybe not entirely. I suspect Donald Trump isn’t saying what he really thinks about the whole thing. I suspect that, even as uninhibited and unfiltered as he normally is, maybe in this case he understands enough to know he can’t express the one thing that, deep down inside, he truly feels about the Khans losing a son while his own family remains untouched by war.

This is what I imagine Trump really thinks in his heart of hearts:

“Too bad for you, Khizr Khan, but only chumps allow their children to go off and fight in a stupid, useless war. And I, Donald J. Trump, am no chump. You lose, I win. I always win.”