January 27, 2007

Pain in the Panera

If you want to air your dirty laundry in public, start a blog. That is my advice to the man who walked into my satellite office, a/k/a Panera, the other day, and disrupted the place with his business call.

Panera is a public restaurant where couples, friends, families and others go to be with each other or to eat alone. It also is a place, due to having free WiFi, where people like me go to get online and work, send emails, etc. No matter why we are there, we all expect a certain level of civility.

Obviously, one man did not get the message. He marched into Panera, a flashing Bluetooth on his ear, in the middle of a loud cell phone conversation. It went something like:
"You need to get a hold of Pearlstein!"
"That's right, Pearlstein!"
"Because he owes me fourteen thousand, that's why!"
"He's on the goddamn ski slopes at Jackson Hole, and I can't reach him!"
"That's fourteen big ones!"

I tried to get his attention to give him the palm-down-hand-lowering-international-sign-for-shut-the-fuck-up, but he was facing the other way. This conversation went on for several minutes. Finally, a woman and child came over to his table and sat down. The woman said something to the man. He got up and walked outside, still talking.

Thankfully. Now I could finally get some peace.

Not so fast. At nearly the same ear-splittingvolume, the woman started talking to the kid:
"How was your day at school?"
"Did you do your multiplication tables?"
"What's two times four?"
"What's three times six?"
"What's four times five?"
"What's five times seven?"

I packed my things and got out of there before they could complete the multiplication table.

What makes people think they can behave this way in public? For a measly fourteen large?

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January 24, 2007

The Idiot's Guide to Online Dating

I am the idiot in question. I am also an online dating veteran. With these two credentials, I offer the following guidelines in the hope of increasing the success of online daters, thereby increasing love and understanding between and among the sexes. (I have no experience with same-sex dating, Not That There's Anything Wrong With That. However, I suspect that many of the guidelines below would apply no matter whom one is looking to date online):

For Women
1. If you do not post a photo with your profile, men will assume you are ugly. Or fat. Or both. If you are that shy, you have no business engaging in online dating, where pride is the first casualty.
2. If your only photos are with sunglasses on, men will assume you have one eye. Or three. Some number other than two.
3. If you post a photo with you and a really hot girlfriend who is hotter than you, men will contact you with the message "who's your friend?"
4. If your profile photo is the one photo of you, taken in a certain kind of light, that looks really great, but looks nothing like you, men will be utterly disappointed when they meet you. Trust me, your sparkling personality will not win them over.
5. If your profile photos were taken more than five years and thirty pounds ago, see #4.
6. When it comes to body type, men will assume that you are following the "rule of 1," meaning that you will list a body type one category better than your true body type. For example, "Slender" means athletic, "Athletic" means average, "Average" means a bit overweight, "Curvy" means quite a bit overweight, and "A few pounds overweight," well, let's not touch that one.
7. If you are over 35 years old, men will assume that you are following the "rule of 2," meaning that your stated age is two years younger than your real age. They will be correct in their assumption. They will counterbalance this rule by searching for women up to an age that is two years less than the true maximum age they want to search for.
8. If your profile text includes repeated declension of pronouns, nouns and verbs ("I seeking most wonderful love man for giving me best life"), rather than assuming that you are test-marketing titles for the Borat sequel, prospective daters will assume that you are a Russian mail-order bride. They will be correct in their assumption.
9. If your profile contains a laundry list of things you do not like, prospective daters will assume that you are a picky and negative person. They will be correct in that assumption.
10. If you get to a first date with someone and spend the date stating all the things you do not like, and why, see #9.
11. If you post pictures of yourself in lingerie and stilletto heels, hanging onto a stripper pole, and your profile states that you want to be taken seriously for your mind, men will assume that you are sending a mixed message. They will be correct in that assumption. However, this will not be a problem, because no man will have read your profile text. You will get lots of hits.
12. If your profile lists every country you have ever been to, and the list reads like the U.N. roster, men will be intimidated and will think that you have trouble sitting still.
13. If you write in your profile that you "can go from jeans and hiking boots to a little black dress and strappy sandals in 15 minutes," men will assume that you do not take showers.

For Men
1. See #1 above.
2. See #2 above.
3. See #3 above.
4. See #4 above.
5. See #5 above, substituting "thirty thousand hairs" for "thirty pounds."
6. If you post photos with your hand on a status symbol, such as a Bentley Continental GT, a Ducati 1098 or Scarlett Johanssen, women will assume you are a cheeseball. They will be correct in their assumption.
7. If you are 54 years old and are searching for women ages 18-25, women will assume you are a cheeseball. They will be correct in their assumption.
8. When it comes to body type, women will assume that you follow the "rule of 1" explained in # 6 above. For men, "Slender" means athletic, "Athletic" means average, "Average" means flabby, and "A few pounds overweight" means huge pot belly ready to have a heart attack at any moment while shouting "da Bears!" 9. If you are under 6 feet tall, women will assume that you follow the "rule of 2," meaning that your stated height is two inches taller than your true height. They will be correct in their assumption. They will counterbalance this rule by searching for men at a listed minimum height that is two inches taller than the real minimum height they want to search for.

Happy hunting!

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January 23, 2007

State of the Union: Bush Moderate, Webb Dominant

Last night's State of the Union ritual was stunning in two respects. First, George Bush often sounded like a moderate. Gone was the hubris, the smirking, from years past, when he faced a rubber-stamp Republican majority in Congress. Instead, Bush last night called for an increase in fuel economy standards for cars. He called for an effort to fight "global climate change," the GOP phraseology for "global warming," a concept to which many of Bush's party members do not even subscribe. Bush also spoke about his efforts to fight HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa. And he called for affordable and available health care for all Americans. These words could practically have been spoken by a Democratic president. When Bush did turn into the old Bush and touted his Iraq troop escalation plan, however, the response even from Republicans was muted.

Bush's chastened demeanor and moderate proposals reflected the new political reality he faces. That reality was evident over Bush's left shoulder, where the first female Speaker of the House in U.S. history, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, sat. The new political reality was also evident just feet in front of Bush, where, for the first time, the sea of Senators and representatives Bush faced in the House Chamber was more blue than red.

But much more remarkable than Bush's speech was the Democratic response by Virginia Senator Jim Webb. Usually the opposition party doesn't have a chance in the response to the State of the Union speech. Most of the time, the speaker is not as well known as the President. He or she has very little time to prepare. There is no red white and blue bunting, no cheering representatives and senators, no stars in the gallery above. However, Webb's response to Bush was an alpha male Scots Irish tour de force. Calm, steely eyed, and spare of speech, Webb held up a picture of his father in military uniform. Then Webb spoke about his own military experience in Vietnam, and that of his brother. Finally, Webb disclosed that his son is now fighting in Iraq, one of very few children of members of Congress in Iraq. Webb spoke about how proudly his family has served their country in uniform, and, something we rarely hear, what the government owes our fighting men and women in return:

"We owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it. But they owed us — sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it."

According to Webb, George Bush has broken this sacred compact with America's soldiers:

"The president took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq, the director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many, many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs. We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable — and predicted — disarray that has followed."

Webb concluded his response by recalling strong Republican presidents, such as Dwight Eisenhower, who had the courage to end America's involvement in unsuccessful wars when it became clear that a military solution alone was not possible. Webb then said:

"These presidents took the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight we are calling on this president to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way."

The contrast between a president whose popularity, influence and connection to reality is waning and a tough new Democratic Senator willing to take him on directly, possibly with his emboldened party in tow, could not be more clear.

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January 22, 2007

California Bumper Stickers

This Volvo driver has a lot to say, including "Buck Fush," "Please forgive me; I was raised by wolves," "Why Be Normal?" "GOD protect me from your followers," "No More BUllSHit," and my favorite, "Pedro/Napoleon '08."

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January 18, 2007

Attorney General Gonzales Grilled by Senate; Bush Dictatorship Officially Over

The Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate has wasted no time hauling in Bush Administration officials for hearings. Several days ago it was Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and she received a double-barreled mouthful from both Democrats and Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee. Yesterday, it was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' turn before the Judiciary Committee, and it was another George Foreman-style grillin'.

Once again, Democrats and some Republicans (especially Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania) blasted Gonzales and George Bush for unconstitutional actions. These actions include Bush's promiscuous use of "signing statements" when signing legislation, that often say Bush will not cooperate with the very law he is signing. Senators also questioned Gonzales about spying on Americans, including opening of American citizens' mail, by the Pentagon and the CIA. Likewise, Gonzales tried to defend the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping on Americans' telephone calls for the past 5 years, which violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ("FISA"). Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) sharply criticized Gonzales and Bush for falsely attacking Democrats as opposing the "surveillance of terrorists," when in fact Democrats only opposed Bush's illegal wiretapping of Americans without first obtaining a warrant from the FISA Court, as required by the law.

As was the case with Condi Rice, Gonzales gave the Senators many weaselly non-answers. When asked whether George Bush would need Congressional authority to invade Iran, Gonzales said Bush would not need Congressional authority if Iran attacked the U.S. Gonzales' response is important to keep in mind given the recent actions Bush has ordered, such as storming an Iranian diplomatic mission in Iraq, and sending a naval force to the Persian Gulf off the Iranian coast, that could easily provoke a military response by Iran.

The biggest fireworks at the hearing occurred when Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) spoke passionately about Maher Arar, a Canadian software engineer who was stopped in New York on his way to Canada in 2002, and was deported to Syria, where he was jailed and tortured for more than a year, only to be released after a Canadian inquiry determined that Arar was innocent and was arrested by mistake. To add insult to injury, Arar is still on the U.S. terrorist "no fly" list, even though he has been cleared. Leahy asked Gonzales about the U.S. policy of "rendering" (a ridiculous euphemism for kidnapping and sending) suspects to other countries where they are likely to be tortured. When Gonzales stated that the U.S. "sought assurances" from Syria that Arar would not be tortured, Leahy went ballistic, saying:

"We knew damn well if he went to Canada he wouldn't be tortured. He'd be held and he'd be investigated. We also knew damn well if he went to Syria, he'd be tortured. And it's beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured."

Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) expressed concern that Gonzales has forced at least 7 U.S. Attorneys, including some that are conducting investigations into wrongdoing by Republican officials, to resign and has replaced them without the required hearing before the Judiciary Committee, pursuant to an obscure provision in the Patriot Act that is reserved only for emergencies.

Gonzales, Rice, and other Bush Administration officials are receiving a clear message from the Senate that the Bush dictatorship is over. It is refreshing that, after 6 years of the rubber-stamp Republican Congress, the Democrats are conducting oversight and asking tough questions, as the taxpayers hire their Senators to do, and as the Constitution provides.

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January 17, 2007

Bush Administration Goes Back to the Future with Warrantless Wiretapping

In the movie "Back to the Future," Marty McFly's family photograph begins fading when he goes back in time and affects events in a way that jeopardizes his own birth. McFly's photograph reminds me of the U.S. Constitution during the Bush Administration. Fortunately, like the kiss between Marty's future parents, a Bush Administration decision today has slightly reversed the fading of Constitutional ink.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sent a letter to Congressional leaders today confirming that the Bush Administration will seek warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ("FISA") court before wiretapping U.S. citizens, as required by federal law. Bush and Gonzales have been fighting the FISA notification requirement tooth and nail for over a year, ever since their warrantless wiretapping was publicized by newspapers.

Today's decision is a triumph of the Constitution's built-in checks and balances, as designed by our Founding Fathers. This is evidence that the Constitution still works: Bush, Cheney and their underlings went way too far, approaching a dictatorship, in their actions under the rubric of the "war on terror" and the war in Iraq. The American people protested loudly against these actions at the voting booth last November, and voted for a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Bush and his officials, apparently in response to the new political reality and possible punishment for their continued flaunting of the law, have had to pull back from one of their most egregious and unconstitutional actions. Perhaps they will soon pull back from other such policies.

I'm so pleased that I even have this crazy thought that Bush and the Democrats might come together and reach some sensible middle ground on some of the important issues that the country faces, rather than approaching the brink of a Constitutional crisis, or even impeachment. One can dream ....

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January 13, 2007

What to Do When the World is Coming to an End? Laugh a Lot

Just when it seems like things cannot get much darker in the Middle East and around the world, along comes Netflix to the rescue. The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob arrived in my mailbox several days ago.
This French/Italian production from 1973 is a cure for both personal and political strife. It is full of slaptstick comedy and mistaken identity along the lines of the Pink Panther movies.

The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob is about a rather prejudiced Frenchman, Victor Pivert, who, through a series of accidents, finds himself on the run from some surly and, in his view, swarthy Arab revolutionaries, while also being chased by the police. Pivert, played hilariously by rubber-faced actor Luis de Funes, must impersonate an orthodox Rabbi and accept the assistance of his Jewish chauffeur to hide from the assassins, while simultaneously explaining to his very jealous wife why he is late for their daughther's wedding.

The result is not only a series of slapstick adventures, including a romp through a chewing gum factory, but also a meditation on the irrational ignorance and fear that underlies racial and ethnic prejudice. Without giving away too much, by the end of the movie, deep understanding and bonds develop across racial and ethnic lines: Arab and Jewish, Jewish and Catholic, Arab and Arab, etc. The humanity the characters share far outweighs their petty tribal and religious differences.

The side-splitting comedy and message of tolerance contained in The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob are just what is needed given today's world events. Maybe I can send copies of this movie to Washington, Baghdad, Darfur, and that border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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January 11, 2007

U.S. Invades Iran; U.S. Senate Unloads on Condi

The U.S. is at war with Iran. We invaded them two days ago.
Specifically, U.S. and multinational forces stormed a diplomatic office flying an Iranian flag in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, and arrested five Iranian officials from the office. The office, depending on its precise status as an embassy, consulate or diplomatic mission, is arguably Iranian soil, and thus the invasion of the office and capture of the officials inside is arguably an invasion of Iran and an act of war. The U.S. attack on Iran occurred hours before George Bush's nationally televised speech on Iraq, in which he stated that:

Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

The U.S. has also taken two other steps in its war with Iran. First, the Treasury Department designated Bank Sepah, an Iranian state-owned bank, as involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This action gives the U.S. government the power to freeze Bank Sepah's assets in the United States. Second, the U.S. has sent a naval fleet to the Persian Gulf off the coast of Iran. These are familiar steps that the U.S. has taken against other countries in the past, including Iraq, at the beginning of a war. Sending the navy off the Iranian coast is also, along with the storming of the Iranian diplomatic office, a sneaky way to provoke an Iranian attack on us and then responding in turn, claiming self-defense, and hastening the all-out shooting war with Iran.

Meanwhile, yesterday the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee unloaded on Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice over George Bush's plan to escalate the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. It wasn't surprising that the Democrats, who now lead the committee, opposed Condi and Bush so fiercely, although the level of their opposition was something new. What was really surprising was the opposition coming from Republicans on the committee. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska had the sound bite of the day:

I think this speech, given last night by this President, represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out.

Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich expressed a similar sentiment:

I've gone along with the president on this and I've bought into his dream and at this stage of the game I just don't think its going to happen.

Condi sat hunched over against this barrage, looking like the Grinch at a Christmas party. It was a stunning day in the U.S. Congress, and a turning point in Bush's Iraq War. As committee member Barbara Boxer of California stated, this marks the end of George Bush's rubber-stamp Congress.

It is unfortunate that the U.S. war against Iran had to come four years after the war on Iraq. After the U.S. war on Al Quaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan (a war that the U.S. abandoned prematurely in order to invade Iraq), Iran is perhaps the next war that the U.S. should have waged. As I pointed out nine months ago , Iran finances and supports terrorism. Iran has a WMD program, including one to develop nuclear weapons. But the problem is that, with Bush having gone to war against Iraq instead of Iran and having waged that war in the most dishonest and incompetent way, the U.S. now has no spare troops, no extra money, no national will, no credibility and no international support at the very time that we may need it the most.

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January 09, 2007

Lunatic Fringe, We All Know You're Out There

Way before Stephen Colbert, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson invented a character named Floyd R. Turbo.Dressed in a red hunting cap and red plaid hunting jacket, Floyd gave fictitious editorials for a fictitious local television station. Carson's Turbo was pro-gun, pro-nuclear power, pro-military, and anti-women's rights, all to a hilarious extreme. Carson played the decidedly non-telegenic Turbo brilliantly, shifting nervously, averting his eyes, not knowing where he was supposed to stand, gesturing at the wrong times, and making lame jokes. Turbo favored a military draft because:

"The Army is educational. The Army teaches you how to do dental work-with the butt of a rifle....how to tell what time it is by making a sundial out of a dead person...how to make beer out of bird droppings and also how to make a rubber girl out of an inner tube."

Turbo favored nuclear power because, according to him, when you catch a trout in a boiling red stream, it is already cooked.

Floyd R. Turbo was considered an embodiment of the "Lunatic Fringe." This was the extreme edge of the right wing, often comprised of older white men, who, out of some misguided sense of super patriotism, embraced policies that were so far out there as to be humorous. In fact, Floyd was predated by General Jack D. Ripper from the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove, who said:

"Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face? ...
It's incredibly obvious, isn't it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice. That's the way your hard core commie works."

A third character, Archie Bunker, introduced us to the racism that underscores the ideas of some Lunatic Fringers. Archie believed that anyone whose skin wasn't white, whose eyes weren't blue and whose religion did not include a crucifix was a lower form of humanity. A conversation between Archie Bunker and a black man went like this: "if God had meant for us to be together he'd a put us together. But look what he done. He put you over in Africa, and put the rest of us in all the white countries."

A funny thing happened to the Lunatic Fringe. They eventually became mainstream. While their history is too lengthy to recount here, many of their ideas became the policies of Barry Goldwater ("extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice"), Ronald Reagan (ketchup is a vegetable, welfare mothers drive Cadillacs, missiles should be sold to Iran while Donald Rumsfeld is sent to Iraq to greet Saddam Hussein), the Project for a New American Century (necons Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle et al. suggesting that the U.S. march around the world kicking everyone's ass), the Heritage Foundation (supporting use of taxpayer funds for private school vouchers and church-run "faith-based initiatives"), the teaching of creation and "intelligent design" in science classes, and a slew of studies paid for by big corporations finding against science and in favor of those companies.

As members of the Lunatic Fringe made their way into government, academia, business, the media, and the Republican Party, their ideas have become part of the mainstream national discourse. But the next time you hear a Lunatic Fringe idea spouted by mainstream politicians, businessmen and scientists, the next time you hear that there is no such thing as global warming or that the earth is only 6,000 years old, or that the best way to make our schools safer is to give every teacher a gun, the next time a religious broadcaster says that 9/11 was caused by pagans, abortionists, gays, lesbians and feminists, the next time a President tries to spread freedom and democracy abroad at the barrel of a gun while crushing freedom and democracy here at home, just remember, those ideas probably started out in someone's comedy script.

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January 06, 2007

First the Pope, then the Dope Shows Some Hope

In the space of one week, I agree with both the Vatican and Bill O'Lielly? What gives?

While channel surfing the other night, I caught the tail end of an O'Reilly Factor interview with Eric Vickers of the American Muslim Council. The issue was the refusal of Somali Muslim taxi drivers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to carry passengers who are carrying alcoholic beverages. Not passengers who are drunk. Not passengers who are drinking. Not passengers with open containers of alcohol. Passengers who, fully within their legal rights, are transporting sealed bottles and cans of alcoholic beverages.

As is his style, Bill O'Reilly attacked his invited guest Eric Vickers. I searched for a transcript of the interview, but have not been able to find one. From what I remember, Vickers argued that the Muslim cab drivers must be allowed to exercise their religious beliefs, which include not consuming alcohol, and that forcing them to transport passengers who possessed alcoholic beverages violated these cab drivers' religious freedom and thus discriminated against them based on religion. O'Reilly stated that no passenger carrying sealed alcoholic beverages was causing the cab drivers to violate their religious beliefs. On the contrary, said O'Reilly, singling out individual passengers for refusal of service is the discrimination here. O'Reilly asked Vickers, what if the cab drivers were Jewish and refused to carry Christian passengers wearing visible crucifixes?

I have to agree with Bill O'Reilly on this one. Cab drivers, by and large, are common carriers. They are required to offer their services to the public in a non-discrimnatory way, with a few exceptions, such as visibly violent or unruly passengers. No one forced these Muslim cab drivers at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport to take jobs where they knew they would have to be common carriers dealing with many members of the public in an enclosed automobile. Moreover, as Bill O'Reilly said, no one is accusing the passengers of trying to foist the alcohol on the drivers, or of preaching the wonders of drinking alcohol to the drivers.

This isn't a case of equal treatment, as the cab drivers seem to argue. It's a case of special treatment. If the cab drivers get their way, the result would be similar to the discrimination by cities and airports who put up lavish Christmas displays and then deny other religious groups the same privilege. The cab drivers at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport say the problem can be solved by having different cabs with different colored lights indicating which ones are being driven by Muslim drivers, so that passengers with alcoholic beverages would be asked to choose different cabs. In the days of racial segregation in the U.S., this was known as "separate but equal." If these cab drivers are accommodated, what next? What if Christian cab drivers refuse to carry passengers wearing Muslim garb, claiming that it offends their religion or that they are worried the Muslims are terrorists? What if cab drivers who are members of the White Aryan Nation refuse to carry black passengers? Pretty soon, taxicabs, like restrooms and water fountains in the U.S. not too long ago, will have to be labeled "white," "black" (or, in the parlance of the 1950s, "colored,") "Christian," "Muslim," "Buddhist," etc., and we'll be back to the segregated society that the U.S. Constitution forbids.

One last thing: the cab drivers' profiling of passengers only with visible alcoholic beverages is underinclusive. Most airport passengers carrying alcoholic beverages do so in bags or baggage, not out in the open. The cabbies would only be turning away a small percentage of the alcohol that is getting into their cabs and infecting them. Why stop there? Why not ask for security checkpoints at all taxicab stands, where passengers and their baggage would be searched for alcoholic beverages, so that none of them would end up in the Muslim drivers' cabs?

As Bill O'Reilly said, for once correctly, the "separate but equal" taxicab idea is "insane."

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January 05, 2007

The Grand Illusion

Jean Renoir's film La Grande Illusion is one of the classics of cinema. It also holds lessons for us today.

La Grande Illusion, released in 1937, is about the relationship between French prisoners of war and their German captors during World War I. What is so striking is the courtesy and respect each side gives to the other. They treat each other as human beings, patriots for their respective countries who happen to be at war with each other not by their choice, and even as neighbors.

I'm not sure if the title "La Grande Illusion" refers to the illusion that people, with so much in common, can go to war and commit violent acts against each other without severe psychological consequences, or the opposite illusion, that people can act with civility toward each other when their natural state is war and violence. Hopefully it is the former and not the latter.

Either way, in the face of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Haditha, La Grande Illusion is an important reminder of the possibility and the necessity of maintaining humanity even in the darkest of times, and proving that we still deserve to be known as "humankind."

A terrific restored print of La Grande Illusion is available for rental on dvd.

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January 03, 2007

According to The Americans, The Russians are The New Germans

Be careful what ethnic group you disparage in coffee houses.

A few days ago, I was with a couple of folks I know outside at Peet's Coffee. Somehow, the conversation turned to The Russians. I think it started when one of my table mates, "Giselle," spoke about her five-star hotel marketing business. The other table mate, "Sandra," mentioned a stay at a top hotel in the South of France for the Cannes Film Festival (yes, I sometimes travel in a fast crowd). Sandra said that a bunch of Russians were staying at the hotel, and they behaved so badly that the other guests were "mortified." Apparently, The Russians were incredibly loud, extremely vulgar, abusive toward the hotel staff, and threw their money around like confetti.

This began a diatribe against The Russians to which Giselle added her own anecdotes. I didn't really have anything to add, except something that could be a compliment: a friend of mine who travels to Moscow regularly on business tells me that, on a per capita basis, Moscow has the largest number of Mercedes S-Class automobiles in the world (most of them, apparently, black). I also noted that these stereotypes of The Russians seem to have replaced stereotypes of The Germans from a couple of decades earlier, apparently as a result of which countrymen and women are traveling around the world spending the most money at a given time.

During our conversation, I noticed a trio consisting of a man and two women, all about 60 years old, at the next table. They were dressed well, the mustached man wearing dark sunglasses and a driving cap, and one of the women wearing black slip-on shoes that were made of leather in a crocodile pattern. The most unusual thing about this trio was that, during our conversation, they were silent, and the man kept staring at us. I thought to myself, could they be ... no, they couldn't be.

When we got up to leave, the trio started talking ... in Russian.

I guess they were talking about The Ugly Americans and how rude they are, sitting around disparaging other ethnic groups in their faux European coffee houses.

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January 02, 2007

The Vatican Gets it Right

For once, I find myself strangely in agreement with the Vatican. According to news reports, the Vatican daily newspaper has condemned media outlets worldwide for showing images of Saddam Hussein's hanging and the moments leading up to Saddam's hanging. According to the Vatican paper, the publication of images of Saddam's hanging was a "spectacle" that violates basic human rights and that could lead to further violence in Iraq and elsewhere. The article reportedly went on to state that, "in a country ever more disfigured by every kind of violence, you don't need arrogant gestures but signals that go in the opposite direction."

Some people view the Vatican as arguably the source or inspiration of some of the worst violence committed in the history of mankind. However, at least the Vatican got it right this time. A world that celebrates the notion of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" is a world that will eventually become blind and toothless.

Maybe, just maybe, the media images of Saddam Hussein's hanging will have the opposite effect. Anti-death penalty advocates often request that state-authorized killings (I refuse to fall into the trap of using the king of all euphemisms, "executions") be televised, so that people will see how repulsive it is to take a human life, even of someone who, as the Vatican concedes in this case, is 'guilty of grave crimes."

As civilization marches into another new year, we can only hope.

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