Friday, October 27, 2017

Veep Said It Best

Last week we learned that there are up to 1000 US troops stationed in Niger, a force level that even key senators were not aware of. This follows Donald Trump’s earlier announcement that he will send additional troops to fight in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Such news makes me think of a certain scene from “Veep”, the Emmy-winning farce about a West Wing in disarray. By the way, it’s a portrayal that is looking more realistic and prescient every day.

In this particular scene (season three, episode nine), White House strategist Kent Davison travels to New Hampshire to deliver some urgent news in person to Vice President Selina Meyer. Feeling the full gravity of what he’s about to say – that President Hughes has unexpectedly decided to resign and that Selina will shortly become president – Kent has difficulty beginning.

Noticing Kent’s solemn look, Selina quickly asks him, “What is it? Are we at war?”

Without skipping a beat, he answers, “Ma’am, we’re America. We’re always at war.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Stupid Question

This is a stupid question, but also a serious one. 

Why is the National Anthem played, and people expected to stand, at every pro sports event in the US? As far as I know, this doesn’t happen at hockey or soccer games in Finland, unless it’s an international game. 

If this happens at sports venues, why not at other places where Americans gather in public? Like at movie theaters? You could imagine that after the commercials and trailers of upcoming features, just before the lights go down for the movie itself, a giant American flag would fill the screen and the Anthem would start in surround sound, while the audience rises to its feet. 

Likewise, why not at the ballet, the opera? Why doesn’t every university class begin with the Anthem? Or every business meeting? Or the beginning of every workday in the office? Or the beginning of every shift at the factory? Or every church service, so that before the preacher steps up to the altar, the congregation would stand, forget about God for a moment and gaze lovingly at the flag while the choir sings a lovely rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? 

And should it be only at gatherings? Why not in out in public? There could be speakers on every street corner that would blare out at regular times, or even randomly, a recording of the Anthem, forcing pedestrians to stop and display their patriotism by standing with their hands over their hearts for a couple of minutes before hurrying on down the sidewalk. 

Why only at sports events? 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Valeuutiset?

As part of my ongoing struggle to learn Finnish, I have now and then tried reading various books suomeksi. One of these I recently took a stab at (once again) is “The Thousand-mile Walk to the Gulf” by the legendary 19th century naturalist and conservation evangelist John Muir. It’s the account of his walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867, just after the Civil War.

One passage I ran across about a man he encountered along the way struck me as surprising resonate to today:

Matkasin muutaman mailin vanhan tennesseeläismaanviljelijän kanssa, joka oli hyvin kiihtynyt juuri kuulemistaan uutisista. ”Kolme kuningaskuntaa, Englanti, Irlanti ja Venäjä, on julistaneet sodan Yhdysvalloille. Voi, se on kamalaa, kamalaa”, hän sanoi. ”Taas on sota alkamassa, ja vielä näin äkkiä oman ison tappelumme jälkeen. No, ei kai sille mitään voi, enkä mä voi muuta sanoa kuin eläköön Amerikka, mutta parempi olisi, jos mitään kärhämää ei tulisi.”

”Mutta oletko varma, että uutiset pitävät paikkansa?”, minä kysyin. ”Kyllä vaan”, hän vastasi, ”sillä mä ja muutama naapuri oltiin kaupassa eilen illalla, ja Jim Smith, joka osaa lukea, luki tän jutun sanomalehdestä.”


I traveled a few miles with an old Tennessee farmer who was very excited about news he had just heard. “Three kingdoms, England, Ireland and Russia, have declared war on the United States. Oh, it is horrible, horrible,” he said. “Again, war is coming, and yet so soon after our own big fight. Well, I don’t suppose anything can be done about it. The only thing I can say is hooray for America, but it would be better if there were no squabbles.”

“But are you sure that the news is correct?”, I asked. “Sure,” he answered. “Me and a few neighbors were at the store yesterday evening, and Jim Smith, who can read, read the story from the newspaper.”

Needless to say, no such war had been declared. Ireland? Really?

In today’s environment -- where reality itself seems to be in dispute at every turn and what you think really happens in the world will depend on which media you consume -- the farmer’s falling for a 19th century version of fake news somehow feels familiar.

From this you might be tempted to think Muir's account shows that, in this regard, there’s nothing new under the American sun. But, still, you can’t blame an illiterate farmer for trusting his friend Jim’s recitation of an erroneous newspaper story. It’s not as if he could Google “Ireland declares war”!

Today’s Americans, with so many ways to receive and double-check the news, have no such excuse for falling for stories that are demonstrably false (like Trump's claim that at least 3 million illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton in the US election, depriving him of a popular-vote victory), while at the same time crying “fake!” every time they encounter legitimate news (such as Russia’s election meddling) that goes against their politics. 

But that doesn't stop many from doing it anyway. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Trump at Sea

I admit this is me being nit-picky, but...here we go.   

To explain why emergency aid has been seen as arriving more slowly to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria than it did to the similarly affected areas of Texas and Florida, Trump said this: 

“It’s an island, sitting in the middle of the ocean. And it’s a big ocean. It’s a very big ocean.” 

Now it must be said, Trump is correct, at least in his first three words. Being an island means Puerto Rico is much harder to reach. The logistics are completely different from sending aid to Houston. 

But rather than just stating this simple fact, Trump couldn’t resist adding a rhetorical flourish that is so characteristic of him: unnecessary exaggeration, hyperbole that puts Trump in the best possible light, or explains away his shortcomings. It’s something I find so infuriating about him. 

Puerto Rico is not in the middle of the ocean. It’s not Bora Bora. It’s about 1000 miles from Mar-a-Lago, about the same distance as between Mar-a-Lago and Manhattan, a distance I’m sure Trump can easily grasp. Trump probably really does understand Puerto Rico is in America’s backyard, but it suits him to downplay that fact. 

By informing the American public how incredibly remote Puerto Rico supposedly is (“I can tell you, it’s remote, so remote. You won’t believe how remote it is. Nobody knows how the hell to even get there. Believe me. It’s so far away that everyone speaks Spanish!”), Trump hopes to get a pass for making Puerto Ricans wait so long for some presidential attention. 

Of course, this is Trump's go-to tactic of distorting facts (or making them up out of whole cloth) to fit a narrative in some way positive to himself. Some may call it "being disingenuous". Others may call it lying. He does it all the time. 

If Trump thinks exaggerating the “remoteness” of Puerto Rico lets him off the hook (somewhat) for a slow relief effort, God help the folks in Hawaii (2300 miles from the US mainland) if they ever need help. Or consider poor Guam, now in the nuclear crosshairs of Kim Jong-un. That tiny US territory really does sit in the middle of a very big ocean, 5500 miles from the West Coast (though a bit closer to Alaska). 

In the world according to Trump, those places might as well be on Mars.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Allegiance

Funny what you do and don’t remember from your childhood.

As someone who grew up in Georgia in the 1960s, I have no concrete memory of ever pledging allegiance to the American flag in school. Maybe we did it every day, and did it so routinely and mechanically that there was nothing memorable about doing it. 

(In the same vein, I don’t remember putting on my pants every morning before school – except the one morning when there was a scorpion in my jeans, something which I remember very well indeed  yet, I’m confident I never went to school pantsless. Despite all those dreams.)

It makes me wonder whether we actually ever did recite the pledge, as many conservative friends so often fondly recollect doing, if their Facebook comments are to be believed. I really do wonder.

What I do remember very plainly from those days was the glorification of a different flag.

Regularly, we students at Southwestern Elementary would gather in the cafeteria to watch educational films. These are the kinds of seriously earnest films that many might be considered hokey today. I remember only a couple.

One was “A Desk for Billie”, a story about a bright, young girl named Billie from a migrant family (in this case a family of Depression-era agricultural workers constantly on the move from place to place across the country) and how a sympathetic teacher helped her adjust to yet another new school and unfamiliar classmates. At least, that’s how I remember it. Another film was about a man who failed to heed his own wise and fatherly advice to his children about safe driving habits and got himself killed.

In any case, every one of these edifying little movies we watched began with a few seconds giving credit to the Georgia Department of Education for providing the film. These few seconds consisted of the image of the state flag of Georgia suddenly filling the screen, while the blackface minstrel tune “Dixie” blared from the speakers.

It is one thing I clearly remember from my school days. It’s as if it was seared into my brain. Which, of course, was the purpose. Keep in mind that, at the time, the Georgia state flag mostly consisted of the Confederate battle flag, a favorite symbol, then as now, among white supremacist groups.

That symbol had been added to the state flag just a few years before I started school, during a time of increased agitation over segregation (the American version of apartheid). The US government was in the process of trying to end segregation. The Georgia government was trying to keep it intact and resented any interference from Washington in the matter.

By prominently exposing (you might say “subjecting”) school kids to the new, segregationist flag  all to the accompanist of “Dixie” – the state government no doubt hoped to drive home a certain message. And it was not that “all men are created equal”. 

The fact that I don’t remember a morning ritual of pledging allegiance to the American flag, but can still vividly recall the propagandization of a symbol of racism makes me wonder:  where exactly were we impressible kids being taught our allegiance should lie. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Old MacDonald Had a Farm

This seems like a case of counting your chickens before they hatch.  

Donald Trump has been making a lot of hay (farming metaphor #2) over the fact that the Q2 GDP growth was recently revised up to 3.0% (from 2.6%). He, and sycophants like Sean Hannity, go on and on and on about how Obama was the only president never to reach a GDP increase of that level.  

Of course, he’s trying to make an apples and oranges comparison here (fruit metaphor, so kinda farming-related). What Trump is referring to is the fact that, during the Obama years, GDP growth never rose above 2.9%. This is true. Growth for a full calendar never reached 3% under Obama. But that hasn’t happened under Trump either. Not yet. If it ever does.  

But that’s talking about annual GDP growth. What Trump has presided over is 3% GDP growth in a single quarter. Obama did the same in eight different quarters during his two terms. In fact, in Q3 2015 GDP grew by 4.6%, a much bigger number than 3.0%.  

Trump may well see the kind of growth numbers he’s been promising – though somehow lately it seems he’s forgotten how during the campaign he swore he’d conjure up a GDP growth of FOUR percent, not a measly three percent.  

Anyway, seems to me that excessive crowing (barnyard fowl metaphor) about one discrete quarter of 3% growth involves a risk of backfiring. What goes up can come down. 

After the unemployment rate for May was announced (4.3%), Trump bragged about how it was the lowest jobless rate in 16 years and was unexpectedly robust. (Keep in mind that while Obama was president, Trump claimed such statistics were “fake”.) The next month, the rate ticked back up to 4.4%.  What comes down can also go up. 

Rushing to take credit for good outcomes you have dubious influence over can come back to bite you on the ass (the tender body part, not the farmer’s beast of burden), if those outcomes start to sour further down the road.  On the other hand, if that happens maybe you can just start shoveling more horseshit – which, as we all know, is one chore Farmer Don excels at.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Harvey, Irma and the GOP

Irma has now developed into a category 5 hurricane and is almost certainly going to hit somewhere in the US. Hopefully, it will weaken before it gets there and won't be as devastating as Harvey was for Houston. Still, it's a worrisome weather event, which brings to mind a couple of things.  
Republicans basically have one of three approaches to climate change.  
1. It's not real. Trump himself said it was a Chinese hoax. Ergo, no need to reduce carbon emissions.  
2. It's real, but it's not man-made. In other words, we puny humans can't do anything about it. Again, no need to reduce carbon emissions.  
3. It's real, and it may be (partly) caused by human activity, but trying to reduce carbon emissions would hurt the American economy. It's better to mitigate the effects of climate change. Be re-active, not pro-active. Don't worry if it breaks -- just pay for it later.  
If increase levels of carbon start to cause more extreme weather and rising sea levels, so the GOP would say, it's better for the economy to build things like sea walls (make the hurricanes pay for it!) to protect coastal cities.  
Now, with Harvey and maybe with Irma we may start to see what that third approach looks like in practice.  
The recovery from Harvey is estimated to cost taxpayers at least $150 billion, beyond the human costs, which are heartbreaking in themselves. That's not even talking about the cost of building "mitigation" infrastructure against future storms and rising sea levels (though that could be a good works program -- put the 4% of unemployed Americans to work!).  
In any case, this hurricane season may unfortunately give Republicans a chance to put their money where their mouth is regarding climate change.  
I'm sure they'll be happy to spend the money.  


Friday, August 18, 2017

The Limitation of Statues

All the crazy news Donald Trump has generated over the past year or so has, until recently, overshadowed a long-simmering political issue that is extremely topical, though it has stayed a bit under the radar. It only occasionally broke the surface of my Twitter feed. And it got practically no media attention outside the States. Now, that’s all changed.

This is the controversy over the removal of Confederate statues. A controversy that was already heated this spring, but is now red-hot. Even before the tragedy in Charlottesville this past weekend, there was the potential back in May for violence in New Orleans -- that torpid city on the languid Mississippi I have not visited now for many years -- all because of the removal of four public statues or monuments.

I think folks in Finland would be shocked to hear that the removal of these statues had to be carried out mostly at night, by workmen wearing bullet-proof vests and face coverings to hide their identities. There were justifiable concerns that someone would shoot them, so irrational was the passion swirling around this simple public-works task, a fact that reveals some deep divisions in America, as we saw this week.

The monuments that the city of New Orleans decided to remove were of three men: Jefferson Davis (a senator from Mississippi before becoming the president of the Confederate States of America), PGT Beauregard (a native of Louisiana and prominent general in the Confederate Army), and Robert E. Lee (the Virginian who led the army which eventually went down in ignominious defeat). In addition, there was a monument honoring an 1874 uprising by white supremacist paramilitaries called “The White League”, in which they overpowered the New Orleans police force and replaced the Governor of Louisiana for three days before the US Army took control. You can see why residents of NOLA, many of whom are black, might find such a monument in poor taste.

Robert E. Lee coming down in New Orleans.
(Photo: Infrogmation of New Orleans) 

You might understand New Orleans erecting a statue to native son Beauregard, but the only direct connection to Jefferson and Lee that I can see is that they were leading figures in the CSA. In other words, it’s a celebration of the fact that Louisiana was once part of a treasonous group of states that wanted to ensure their citizens continued to enjoy the freedom to own other human beings.

Is that something to celebrate? Most Americans today would (I hope) think not. At least, it's now being debated. Vigorously. 

The murder of nine black worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 reopened an earlier debate about whether the Confederate Battle Flag, used by the KKK as a symbol of hate for decades, should be part of official government iconography. The anti-flag forces won that issue in South Carolina, and the flag came down from the state capitol.

That may have prompted people to begin rethinking the issue of the hundreds of CSA monuments throughout the South. Personally, I would be fine with most being removed -- that is, unless they can be contextualized to explain their dismal role in the Jim Crow South and the perpetuation of the Lost Cause myth that was created to whitewash a disgraceful chapter of US history. Sadly, we now have someone, a young woman Heather Heyer, dying in part because a faction, and not a small one, of Southerners still cling stubbornly to that myth.

And it may only get worse. I’ve gotten the feeling that for many hard core “Southern traditionalists” in Georgia the flash point is Stone Mountain. 

Huge rock carvings on the granite side of that gigantic dome of exposed stone depict Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, all gallantly on horseback. None of these men were from Georgia, so their glorification is only meant to commemorate the traitorous CSA. Stone Mountain was also the birthplace of the second coming of the Klu Klux Klan, giving the place a special resonance with white supremacists.

I’m sure no one is seriously thinking of erasing the carvings from the side of Stone Mountain, but just the mention of the idea evokes some strong reactions from folks. You get the sense that some people would take up arms to prevent any such thing from happening, and that is scary.

It just goes to show the extraordinary meaning people often attach to representative figures in bronze or stone. Throughout history someone has erected public artworks to honor something or someone, and throughout history – at turning points in history, in fact -- someone else has chosen to bring those artworks down, if given the chance.

We probably all remember the image of Saddam Hussein’s 12-meter statue being pulled down by gleeful Iraqis in 2003 -- with the help of a US Marine armored vehicle. It was a mark of defiance and hatred toward a brutal dictator. After the Soviet Union fell, so too did many statues of Lenin as a repudiation of Communism. There must be something gratifying in that act of vandalism, though I must say that pulling down the confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina, this week was stupid, as mob actions often are.

The iconic statue toppling of our age.

Or course, not everyone welcomes such toppling of icons (there’s a word for it, “iconoclasm”), as we see with the protests over the CSA monuments. Sometimes, even simply relocating statues, no matter how carefully, can arouse dangerous passions.

A decade ago, the government of our neighbor Estonia decided to move a Soviet-era statue from the center of the capital Tallinn to a military cemetery a kilometer away. It was clearly a political move, motivated by the Estonians' long-held view of “The Bronze Soldier” as a symbol of Soviet occupation. The county's sizable Russian-speaking minority saw it differently, and as plans for the relocation went forward protests and three nights of rioting and looting ensued, resulting in one death. At the same time, Estonia came under an unprecedented cyber attack by foreign hackers (sound familiar?). Hopefully, by now everyone has come to terms with the soldier’s new home.

As far as I know, no such angry topplings have occurred in Finland. Okay, statue “topping” is practiced annually here -- when an oversized student hat is placed on the head of Helsinki’s lovely Havis Amanda statue as part of May Day celebrations. But that is a wholly different thing. 

There was a bit of ill-feelings when some perhaps overly patriotic Finns fretted that the new (“new” in 1998) Kiasma art museum would overshadow the nearby equestrian statue of Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, Finland’s George Washington in a sense.

Otherwise, the prominent statue of Alexander II* (monarch of Finland when it belonged to the Russian Empire) and the country’s two statues of Lenin have remained unmolested, as far as I know. 

I'd like to think of that as a sign that Finland has healed the wounds of its past much better than the Old South is healing its own -- even after 150 years.


Havis Amanda wearing a white cap on May Day, 2002.

* corrected from original

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Heritage, History and Gasligthing

After some back and forth with people on social media over the last few days, I have some thoughts on points I keep hearing from the other side of the Confederate statue issue.  

1. The question of “heritage”. Some folks seem captive to the past. They venerate the Civil War and honor the leaders of the traitorous Confederate States of America just because “my ancestors fought for the South”.  

It’s as if, once somebody takes a political stand, then all his descendants are locked into that position for generations to come. I really don’t get that. Speaking for myself, I am my own man. I decide what I think about an issue, how I see the world. What my ancestors might have done or thought doesn’t determine what I think.  

2. Even if you take the position that the traitorous CSA and its leaders should be honored because of your heritage, it’s important to remember that the South is home to a lot of people who don’t share that heritage, or whose heritage was slavery itself. Why should communities that are majority black have to put up with memorials of oppressors just because of “your” heritage.  

3. I continuously hear "you can’t rewrite history". Yes, you can. This is what whites in the South did decades ago with the Lost Cause myth-making, to the point where some people even today believe that slavery was NOT the cause of the Civil War. The truth of the conflict was “sanitized” to obscure the racist foundation of the CSA and encourage a sense of victimhood among the losers of the war. To make them feel better about their deplorable past. It is a decades-long process of gaslighting. 

4. In any case, history isn’t written in statues. It’s written in books. If statues are essential for the telling of American history, then why not erect some statues of Hitler, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein? Those guys are part of American history as well. In truth, the Confederate statues are about honoring CSA leaders (and in some cases, common soldiers), not “telling history”.  

5. A typical taking point of CSA apologists is “It’s heritage, not hate.” No, it’s both. It’s a heritage of hate. And it’s nothing to be proud of.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Dixie Chicks and Such

One day this summer, as I headed out to do some work at our sauna-cabin (so called because it’s basically equal parts sauna and cabin – in other words, it’s not that big), I decided to put on some music for the drive. Something besides the Mozart that my son, who had recently been borrowing the car, had left in the CD player.    

I pulled the traveling CD case from the glove-compartment and started flipping through the random selection of discs there. Finding nothing I especially wanted to listen to, I decided to try one disc that I didn’t recognize, one with no markings I could make out.    

When I slipped the CD into the player I was surprised to hear the sound of “The Dixie Chicks” come out of the speakers. I’d almost forgot I had that one.    

I can’t claim to be much of a country-music fan. I grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and didn’t really “discover” other kinds of music until almost high school, when like most of my teenage cohort, I started listening to rock. After that, me and “country” mostly parted ways.    

I do like some artists well enough, Willie Nelson, Doc Watson, some Johnny Cash, old school country, you might say, and bluegrass, but not so much modern, “slicker-sounding” country. I wouldn’t be able to pick Garth Brooks out of a line up. A musical line up, that is.    

Still, I like many of the songs on my one Dixie Chicks CD (Top of the World Tour: Live), spunky tunes, for the most part fun, high energy. Not bad. In reality, however, I bought that CD not because of the music, but because of politics.

Amazing to think that that was 14 years ago, though in many ways it feels like it was much deeper in the past, a very different time from our own.    

The Dixie Chicks, a trio of female country singers from Texas, were at the peak of their popularity in early 2003. Six of their singles had reached number-one on the country music charts in the previous five years, soon after lead singer Natalie Maines had come on board. By the first months of 2003 they had won four Grammys and ten Country Music Association Awards.    

The first months of 2003 was, of course, also the time when the drumbeat for a new war was in full swing in the US. The world watched anxiously to see if George Bush would invade Iraq. The wisdom of such a preemptive (Iraqi had not attacked the US) action was being debated in Congress and the media, though surely not debated enough. Outside the US there was much more skepticism.    

That was the background when The Dixie Chicks took to the stage in London on March 10, 2003. When it came time to perform their current top selling song, Maines paused to say a few words first.    

The song was “Travelling Soldier”, a classic country tearjerker written by Texan Bruce Robison (never heard of him, but that’s not a surprise). It tells about an unassuming young soldier from small-town America, a soldier sent to Vietnam who did not make it back, just one of the some 58,000 Americans who suffered the same fate. (In some ways, the song reminds me of the Vietnam-era hit “Galveston” by Glenn Campbell, who succumbed to Alzheimer’s recently.)   

I guess “Traveling Soldier” took on special meaning for the band as the US was being pushed inescapably by the president toward a controversial war that would again result in the loss of US soldiers. Surely with that in mind, Maines told her London audience this:    

“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”   

The Iraqi War started ten days later. To date, over 4500 Americans have died as a result, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.    

I’m not sure how Maines’ London audience reacted to her mild anti-war statement. Probably with cheers. I suspect most Brits, with the exception of Tony Blair, were not especially eager to follow the US in its quest to topple Saddam Hussein.    

The overall reaction in the States was unambiguous, however, and scalding. Many of the Chicks’ fans were outraged, especially by the criticism of President Bush. People began boycotting the band. Their songs plummeted in the charts, sponsors started to abandon them, and I doubt they have ever fully recovered from the controversy. All because they said they were “ashamed” of the US president. Ridiculous.    

I’m not sure what the opposite of a boycott is. It would be too corny to say it’s a “girlcott”, but okay maybe I just did that anyway. In any case, in order to do my bit to support the band, to boycott the boycott, as it were, I bought a Dixie Chicks CD.  

How times have changed. In today’s political climate, where public discourse has never been coarser, Maines’s ding at George Bush seems quaint by comparison. This year there have been some celebrated cases of celebrities perhaps crossing the bounds of good taste in insulting Donald Trump, sparking outraged conservatives to ask for their heads. They got Kathy Griffin’s at least. She lost her New Year’s Eve gig at CNN and suffered other repercussions after posting a photo of herself holding a fake severed head of Trump.    

Of course, outrage is often a one-way street. You didn’t see the same outrage on the right (or none, in fact) when Ted Nugent, while banishing two machines guns, inspired concert-goers with this bit of nuanced commentary:    

"Obama, he's a piece of shit. I told him to suck on my machine gun. Hey Hillary, you might want to ride one of these into the sunset, you worthless bitch."    

No boycott. No outrage from folks worried about the sanctity of the Oval Office. In fact, Nugent got invited to the White House just three months after Trump took office.    

Isn’t that ironic? Perhaps not as ironic as America electing a president who now claims that he too shared (not really) the Dixie’s Chicks’ opposition to an unnecessary war, a huge disaster that was about to happen. 

His fake opposition didn't prevent him getting elected by many of the same people who 13 years earlier trashed the Dixie Chicks for speaking their minds and taking a genuine stand. Seems supremely unfair to me. 


The Dixie Chicks in concert, June 2003. 
(Credit: Wasted Time R)



Monday, August 7, 2017

Small Lies or Big Delusion?

Once again I’ve been astounded this past week by how fact-challenged Donald Trump is.

First up – the leaked transcript of phone calls. I agree with a lot of people (both Republican and Democrat) that leaking these kinds of presidential phone conversations is not good. But, boy, do they ever reveal some things about Trump.

In one of the calls Trump tells Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto that the state of New Hampshire is a “drug-infested den” (no doubt, now the new state motto!) and for this reason Trump won the state.

To be fair to Trump, we can assume that he’s NOT saying that he was especially popular among the addicted-voter segment (though that might explain a lot). Instead, perhaps he meant that the concern over the opioid epidemic was an issue that worked in his favor – though I don’t know if that’s true, either.

The more interesting fact about Trump’s (mis)statement is that he did NOT “win” New Hampshire. Clinton did, though it was very close. You would think Trump would remember this. Someone should set the record straight with Peña Nieto so he doesn’t accidentally embarrass himself by bringing up this impressive “fact” about Trump at, for example, some cocktail party.

“Did you know,” he would say confidently, “That my good friend Donald Trump won New Hampshire?” while his better-informed companions stare into their drinks in awkward silence.

Anyway, perhaps Trump is thinking of his big GOP primary win in New Hampshire, the surprise victory that set him off on his journey to the White House. Maybe that looms so large in his mind that he confuses it with actually winning the state in the general election nine months ago.

The other thing that struck me this week is what Trump said at a campaign rally in West Virginia (a state he actually did win, bigly). Concerning the Department of Justice investigation into Russian meddling in the election, he assured a throng of cheering coal-industry supporters that “The Russia story is a total fabrication. It’s just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics.” Greatest loss in the history of American politics.

Only, it wasn’t. Trump LOST the popular vote by almost three million votes. He did win the electoral college, but only by 34 votes, the narrowest margin since George W. Bush and in no way a “great win”. (Obama won by 95 and 62 votes.)

It just goes to show that if you repeat an untruth over and over, maybe you start to believe it’s true. Seems to be working for Trump. He’s probably hoping it works for his audience too.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Ron and Betsy Work It Out

A lot of people have been claiming that the meeting Donald Trump Jr. had with a Russian lawyer who was offering damaging information on Hillary Clinton provided by the Russian government is a “nothing-burger” because Junior didn’t actually get any such information. He just wanted to get it, and the fact that it didn’t work out, they would say, excuses him of any possible wrongdoing.

And this is so true. One way to look at it is to imagine an everyday family situation that we can all relate to. 

Just picture a comfortable, suburban living room where...


Ron, a 40-something man, is on the sofa watching TV, when his wife Betsy walks in, holding a piece of paper. She has a concerned look on her face. 

“Ron,” she says. “I found this e-mail on your computer. Would you care to explain this?” 

Ron looks surprised. “E-mail? What e-mail?” 

“From someone named Tiffany. She’s talking about meeting you for dinner.” 

Ron looks relieved. “Oh that. That was just someone that a buddy from work told me about. Said she was, well, you know, easy.” 

“Easy?” 

“Yeah, you know, kind of loose. I thought she might be good for a fling. Maybe a one-night stand.” 

“And you had dinner with this, this Tiffany?” 

“Sure. She sounded great, so I had to check it out. Anyone would have done the same.” 

Ron notices the shocked look on Betsy’s face, mutes the sound on the TV. “But, honey, trust me, nothing happened.” 

Betsy looks at him doubtfully. Ron stands up, takes her hand, gives her a sympathetic look. 

“Sweetheart, she just wasn’t as hot as my friend said. She would have been a lousy lay. Lousy. Yuck. So, I cut the dinner short. Told her ‘No thanks’.” 

Betsy smiles, her eyes misting a little. 

“She wasn’t hot enough for you?” 

“No. And it’s too bad. Trust me, I was really looking forward to it.” He squeezes Betsy’s hand, watches her face. “So, we’re all good? 

Betsy hesitates. Ron continues, "I could have cheated on you, but I didn’t. She just wasn’t hot enough.” 


There’s a twinkle in Betsy’s eye. She leans up and gives Ron a kiss on the cheek. 

“I couldn’t ask for a better husband. I’d better go finish the dishes.” 

As she scurries away, Ron picks up the remote, gazes at the TV with a satisfied smile on his face.

So children, as any good wife like Betsy will tell you, “intention” to cheat doesn’t matter. It's just a nothing-burger. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Japanese Characters

Something that greatly surprised me on our trip to Japan was how little knowledge of English there is the country. Now, I realize that makes me sound like the archetypal American lout expecting to be addressed in my native language wherever I go in the world. It’s easy enough to fall into that trap.

However, I did think that in Japan, which is maybe the most Western of any Asian country – they play baseball there, for goodness' sake! – English would be quite common.

Wrong. In Naha City, the capital of Okinawa, we struggled to find a restaurant with street-side menus in English. At our hotel in Tokyo, we struggled when asking the polite, but bewildered, clerk if there would be coffee available in the lobby when we left at 6:00 the next morning. He looked sympathetic, wanting so much to understand us, but remained clueless. (Okay, to be fair, we were staying at cheap hotels, maybe not often used by Western tourists, so the standards are no doubt different.)

In any case, it began to feel that the Sofia Coppola film “Lost in Translation” rings completely true.

Of course, Japan presents special challenges for English speakers. If you travel in countries that use an alphabet based on the Latin of ancient Rome (which, by my count, is about 80% of all countries) you can squint your eyes and almost make out how a word reads, no matter how foreign it may be. Or at least find it in a phrase book. Or make a comical attempt at pronouncing it to a hotel clerk.

Places like Japan are much different. Without knowledge of the language, it’s impossible to make out anything of signs, maps, menus, practically anything written in Japanese.

The only Japanese characters I had any clue about previously were 入口. I partially remember this from our trip to China some years ago, where I eventually grasped from signs in the Beijing metro that 入口 means “entrance”. Teasing out this bit of understanding was no great lift, however, since the Chinese word was accompanied with its English counterpart.

That was also the case in the Tokyo metro. Chinese characters are employed in the Japanese kanji writing system, and the word for “entrance” is written identically in both languages. It helps that these two characters are quite simple, made up of only a few lines, unlike many Japanese characters that are much more baroque. For example, the kanji for “bear” is , which, if you think of the little lines at the bottom as legs, you could almost imagine as a bear. Or maybe not.

Naturally, if you know the meaning of the two characters in 入口, it all makes sense. means “entering”, and  signifies “gate” or “mouth”, which is especially easy to visualize. Likewise, the word for “exit” 出口, is made up of (“out”) (“gate”).

That’s about the extent of my Japanese reading comprehension. I have no clue how “entrance” and “exit” would be pronounced in Japanese, or Chinese for that matter. Nothing to brag about really.

I did learn one additional word on this trip. We spent part of one day in the town to Takayama, which means “tall mountain”, and is written as 高山. I like the simplicity and obviousness of 山, the character for yama ("mountain"). If I ever got tattooed with a Japanese inscription, it would probably include .

Maybe something like 高熊山 ("tall bear mountain"?). It might be garbled Japanese in reality, but it does look impressive, doesn’t it? 

A sign in Takayama warning about bears, featuring three of the six kanji 
characters I can recognize. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Falling Drops Earth Moves

I recently made a trip to Japan with my wife and grown kids, the first time we have been on holiday together since a trip to Paris in 2010. The “kids”, after all, are all in their twenties, and prone to go off on their own unencumbered by their parents. Traveling as a fully family affair doesn’t often happen anymore.

We were, in fact, visiting one of my sons, who is spending a year in Japan studying folk music. Needless to say, we had an amazing ten days there. We experienced many of those things you would expect to experience in Japan. But not all of them. One experience I was especially hoping for, there on the Pacific Ring of Fire, was a small earthquake. Just a small one, mind you. Just strong enough to know the weird sensation of the ground, solid earth, suddenly moving under my feet without warning. That didn’t happen. Not as I imagined, anyway.

About half through our time in Japan we left the urban whirlwind of Tokyo to see some of the countryside. We departed by bus one night at 11 o’clock to travel overnight through the rainy Japanese Alps. It was a grueling ride, the bus’s seats far too cramped to allow any real sleep. Bleary-eyed and stiff, we were finally deposited at 4:40 A.M. at our destination, the misty town of Takayama.

Temple in Takayama.

We immediately set out in the breaking daylight to explore the town, its streets wet from the overnight rain and deserted at that hour. After a couple of hours strolling through the town, passing a Buddhist temple or two along the way, we found ourselves approaching Shiroyama, a nearly 700-meter-high hill and the site of a heavily forested park surrounding the ruins of a 16th-century castle.

At the base of Shiroyama, we paused as we crossed a stone bridge over a small pond that led to a Shinto shrine. Some of us were watching the fat carp lazily swimming under the bridge. I was checking out one of the blooming Japanese dogwood trees lining the pond. An old woman across the street was doing traditional Japanese exercises in front of her house.

Suddenly, we heard a disembodied voice. At first, I thought it emanated from a loudspeaker at the shrine, making some kind of announcement in Japanese. We quickly realized, however, that the unexpected sound came instead from my son’s and daughter's phones. My son understands Japanese well enough to explain we had just received an earthquake alert. More precisely, a warning that a quake had just occurred somewhere relatively nearby and that aftershocks could be expected.

(A side note: the alarm came automatically only to the iPhones in the family. Not to my blighted Windows phone.)

One of the paths on Shiroyama.

As it turns out, this high-tech warning was not the only indication that a quake had occurred, at least for family members observant enough to notice. As we excitedly discussed the warning, some of us remembered that just moments, literally moments, before the warning was broadcast something else occurred.

The nearby trees had all suddenly shed the rainwater hanging on their leaves. All at once. Instantly. For no apparent reason. There was no wind. The air was dead still. The water just dropped. 

Several of us had noticed the water dropping off the trees so abruptly, but hadn’t thought anything about it. I hadn’t noticed it at all. Clearly, the ground beneath our feet had moved imperceptively, enough to shake water off trees, but not enough for any of us to feel it ourselves. Rainwater dropping from dogwoods from an earthquake seems almost, well, Zen, to me.

Graveyard at the foot of Shiroyama. 
(Photo: Helena Korpelainen)
Watching TV later that evening we saw reports of damage from the quake. Broken roof tiles on a street in the town nearest the epicenter. An elderly woman showing an ornamental clock knocked off her wall. No one seriously hurt. Obviously, not a big quake. 

Googling the quake after returning to Helsinki, I learned that it was measured as a 5.2-magnitude quake according to the US Geological Survey, 5.6 according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. The epicenter was located only about 50 kilometers away from us, as a Japanese crane flies, just on the other side of Mount Ontake, the second highest volcano in Japan and the source of a deadly eruption as recently as 2014.

Of course, we didn’t know any of this as we stood in front of the Hidagokoku Shrine in Takayama and wondered at the marvel of a tectonic event that was revealed only through water falling off trees. 

A marvel that I, for one, missed completely. Maybe, that’s also Zen-like.