Friday, May 01, 2009

Coo Coo Ca Cockatoo

Get an early start on the weekend: Rock out with Snowball, the dancing cockatoo. Turns out humans aren't the only dancers on the planet. Duh. (Despite the stutters in this video--the BBC has a better one--this is real, at least according to this accompanying story.)


The flu formerly known as swine may or may not amount to much this spring--evidence so far is not so much, though WHO scientists caution it's still too early to tell. It's both fascinating and disconcerting to hear doctors and medical reporters say contradictory things about it--for instance, on why younger patients have been hit harder (I've heard both that it's because of undeveloped immune systems, and immune systems that are too good and produce stuff that blocks up the lungs in fighting the infection). But one thing I heard that makes at least common sense is that this is a dress rehearsal: flu of any kind usually weakens in the spring and pretty much disappears in the summer, but a new spring strain typically recurs the following fall.

As a political opportunity it's also losing focus. For the GOPers, there's not enough travail to nail the Obama Administration with anything, and for Dems there's not enough to nail the GOPers with the consequences of crippling public health and killing flu prep money in the stim by calling it pork. Or of holding up key health appointments for unrelated political purposes. Even the entertainment value of the secessionist Texas gov begging for federal help didn't last long. The fickle national attention span moved on, before we got a real good look at who the swine really are.

But in the end it's a good thing: politics and public health crises don't mix, as was evidenced the last time the U.S. tried to deal with swine flu in the 70s. Neither party's administration distinguished themselves in that debacle. The Obama Administration's cool, competent and caring approach is the appropriate one.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Transformational President

It's 100 dizzying days later, and President Barack Obama is already being called a transformational leader, which is what we needed and what the American people voted for. His job approval rating in all major polls is above 60% and his personal approval rating in the NBC poll is above 80%. In these dire times, America is happy with its leader, and more hopeful than it was. Today both houses of Congress passed his budget, which builds on the Recovery Act to address pressing needs and future investment. Secretary of HHS Sebellius was confirmed yesterday, although that news was swamped by PA Senator Specter joining the Democratic Party, which should help at least symbolically in passing the remaining major elements of the President's agenda for this year. The transformation is on: full speed ahead.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

"The future must bear within it every past."--Wallace
Stevens. Photo: Eagle Nebula from Hubble (NASA).

Rahm was Right: Read the New York Review of Books!

Update: A version of this made the Rescued list at Daily Kos.

When the release of the torture memos was criticized, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel responded, "Go get the New York Review of Books!"
He's right--and for more reasons than he meant specifically in that interview.

He was talking about the Mark Danner articles about the secret Red Cross report on U.S. torture, that ran in the April 9 and April 30 issues. But this kind of reporting, which may seem odd to those who don't know the tradition of the New York Review of Books, is only one reason to read this periodical.

As it happens, my subscription is up for renewal. So I'm about to tell you why I'm ponying up to renew it. The first reason is that tradition of reporting represented by Danner, with the kind of courage and in the kind of detail that got me reading this periodical a long time ago.

In the mid and late 60s, when the very young New York Review was among the few publications to expose the lies supporting the Vietnam War. It did so with essays and reporting, and with--perhaps most surprising to readers today--reviews of books.

I recall one vividly. It was a review of Air War: Vietnam by Frank Harvey, which simply reported on the reality of U.S. bombing and the devastation it caused. The review by author Robert Crichton (which is excerpted on the back of the paperback edition of the book)reproduced sections of the book and summarized others. The book had been published some time before and was unnoticed until this review.

For those of us not in New York or even on a large politically active campus, sources of information were few. We got pamphlets etc. from various antiwar organizations, but we relied on just a few sources, like the magazine Ramparts in San Francisco, a scattering of articles in Esquire and other magazines, but most of all, the New York Review of Books.

This was important, because opposition to the war was fed by facts, despite the movies you may have seen. Teach-ins were important and substantive. We were steeped in the history of southeast Asia, in the experiences of colonial regimes, in geopolitical theory and realities,as well as the suppressed facts about what was actually happening in Vietnam. So the recent Mark Danner pieces are squarely within that tradition. (They are online here and here.)

But just as important as the reporting and political discussion is the context of books and the culture of intelligence. We exist in an interrelated world where it is impossible to understand politics--and such complex and emotional issues as torture as an interrogation technique--without knowing as much as we can about what humans are thinking and feeling in a given time, and where historically those thoughts and feelings come from, as well as what light current science can shed on what seems inexplicable. Plus it's a big world.

There are lots of books published about all kinds of important and fascinating subjects, as well as novels and volumes of poetry that provide their own kinds of information on our world. The New York Review's writers--among the best writers and scholars around---write in depth and enough length to give us the gist of the books under discussion (and let's face it, it's unlikely we'll read all of them, so this is about as much as we'll learn from them) as well as trenchant commentary and informed context.

The April 9 issue, containing the first Danner piece, is a great example. It has Pico Iyer reporting on the current situation in Tibet and the Dalai Lama. It's relatively brief yet covers a lot of ground incisively, informed by personal experience, so it's probably the best you could read anywhere.

How about connecting the economic crisis to the foundation ideas of major religions, as well as the planet, the past and the future? Novelist Margaret Atwood does in a new nonfiction book, and John Gray's review describes and summarizes it in a tantalizing way.

There's also an interesting review of Robert Kaiser's book on lobbying in Washington, Anthony Lewis on a book about lawyers, pieces on the South African president who followed Mandella and the courts in Cambodia.

But in this same issue is a review of a new novel by Zoe Heller, Freeman Dyson writing about a new book on a unified physics theory, Jeremy Bernstein on Big Science. Books on Lincoln, what makes the French French, and Flannery O'Connor.

There is also the best article I've read on the poetry of John Ashbery, by Dan Chiasson. It's trenchant and comprehensive, and without jargon, cant or any obscurity. It is a great example of what the New York Review publishes at its best. I believe in the liberal arts ideal as well as liberal ideals--and this publication brings both to life, in the moment.

This is the Spring Books issue, so not every issue is this big or good, but it gives an accurate idea of the range. Politically as in the arts and sciences, the Review gives space to well articulated arguments of various persuasions--in fact, the new May 14 issue has an article calling for the limitation of presidential power by Senator Arlen Specter.

The New York Review places some but not all of its articles on the Internet, so the paper edition is essential. My biggest problem with the Review is the same now as it always was: getting to read all that I want to before the next issue arrives. This year I did pretty well through the fall and winter until March. Now I'm behind. But the publication schedule slows in the summer (it's normally every two weeks), so I'm looking forward to some hours in the sun catching up. Right now though I have to make sure the issues keep coming, by renewing my subscription.