Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


Top Ten Day: My favorite empires

As a history major, I'm a big proponent of the "great man" theory of history - important people having a big impact on history. I mean, let's face it - peasants are pretty much the same throughout history, so although studying them can tell us a lot about how life was like in 13th-century Italy or 20th-century Russia, it can't tell us what the hell was going on, because the peasants were just doing their thing, trying to survive. My kind of history has fallen out of favor as historians focus on the common man more, but to me, it's kind of like the Paris Hilton theory of history - she's famous pretty much because she's alive, not because of any accomplishments. The same holds true for peasants - they are of historical interest simply because they lived, and not because they actually did anything.

Empires are big in "great man" theory of history. Social historians don't care as much about empires, because they contend that it doesn't really matter who's in charge - things will go on as before, and the peasants will suffer. That's kind of my point, but that's not where I'm going with this. I just want to celebrate my favorite empires in history - "favorite" meaning the ones I'm interested in, not necessarily the ones that did the most for human progress. Of course, most rulers of empires aren't interested in human progress. What's an empire? Like irony, I'll know it when I see it. Some call the United States an empire. Sorry, but it doesn't count. But that's just me.

So let's check out some keen empires!

1. The Ottoman Empire, circa 1300-1922. The Ottomans don't get a lot of respect these days, because they were Turks, and everyone knows how horrible the Turks are, right? Ottoman Turkey, however, ruled much of the Middle East for 500 years or so, and the Ottomans contributed quite a bit in terms of military organization and governance. They had some beautiful art, too - a few years ago we went to the Portland Art Museum and saw an exhibit of Ottoman art, which of course drew the ire of the Armenian community in town. The Ottomans brought stability to the Balkans and the Levant, and one of their sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent, might have been the greatest emperor of all time. They almost overran Eastern Europe more than once, which would have completely changed the way history played out and remains a great "what-if" of the world. Yes, the empire became corrupt and frail and was often held together by the European Powers in the nineteenth century because they had their own agendas, but we shouldn't ignore the greatness that was the Ottoman Empire.

The map is from here.

2. The Byzantine Empire, circa 337-1453. This is the Eastern Roman Empire, if you want to be technical, because when Diocletian revamped Rome in the late third century, he split what had become somewhat unwieldy as a single political entity. Then Constantine built Constantinople at what is probably the best place to build a city in the history of mankind (New York might be second-best), and after the West fell, the East became the only Roman Empire, and turned more and more to Greece for their culture and language, hence "Byzantine" after the original Greek settlement on the shores of the Bosporus. The Byzantines are fascinating to me, because their city became the embodiment of empire: as long as Constantinople stood, the empire existed, even at the end, when that's all that was left. I find the emperors wonderful to read about: Justinian and his prostitute-turned-empress wife, Theodora; Heraclius, who finally defeated the Persians only to see his life's work destroyed by a new enemy, the Arabs; Irene, who ruled in 800 when Charlemagne was crowned in the West and may have spurred that decision, because everyone knew a woman couldn't rule an empire; Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who wrote a political treatise that gives us lots of information about the tenth century; Basil II, who has one of the best nicknames in history - "Bulgar-Slayer"; and Alexius, John, and Manuel Comnenus, who fought off the Crusaders and helped bring Byzantium its final glory days. Their relations with the West fascinate me, too, as does the Fourth Crusade, when the knights of Europe dared sack the city, earning the enmity of most right-thinking Christians. The final conflict against the Ottomans is interesting, too, as the Byzantines tried to mend fences with Rome against the wishes of their own populace. In a thousand-year history, there's very little that's boring about the Byzantines.

I found the map here, which shows the boundaries of the empire at different times in its history.

3. The Carolingian Empire, 800-843. Yes, it's a short-lived empire, and I suppose I could stretch it out, but the empire was established in 800 and was pretty much destroyed by the Treaty of Verdun in 843. I've written quite a bit about Charlemagne and his empire, so I'll just point out how neat the Carolingian Renaissance is and what a shockingly dynamic ruler Charlemagne really was.

Here is where I found the map.

4. The Roman Empire, 27 B. C.-A. D. 476. The granddaddy of them all! Okay, not really, but the oldest on this list. Rome set the stage for Europe, and as I dig European history, it's not surprising I like this empire so much. Rome is endlessly fascinating, from the early Julio-Claudians and the dominance of the Mediterranean (not to mention their involvement in that Jesus fiasco) to the second-century emperors like Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius to the third-century disasters to the renaissance under Diocletian and Constantine the Great. It's fun to read about the crazy emperors, but part of the interest in Rome is reading about how the fringe cultures and warriors reacted to Rome, from Zenobia in Palmyra to Boudicca in England to the later invasions of Goths and Vandals and whatnot. You could start studying Rome today and do so for the rest of your life and never run out of things to discover. It's quite keen.

5. The Umayyad/Abbasid Empires, 632-750; 758-1258. The early years of Islam are marked by astonishing expansion into northern Africa and east into Persia. This took place under the Umayyads, who were overthrown by the Abbasids in 750. I put the two together because the change in the caliphate was fairly smooth (accompanied by civil war and mass slaughter, to be sure, but once the Abbasids became ascendant, they simply took over). The Umayyads moved to Spain and set up a separate caliphate there, which led to a great flowering of culture on the peninsula. This time is Islam is fascinating, as the Muslims weren't sure what to do with all the possessions they suddenly found themselves with, and toward the end of the period, those tacky Crusaders showed up and upset the china in the Middle East, which unified a somewhat fractured religion against them. The greatest Abbasid caliph was Harun al-Rashid, the contemporary of Charlemagne and the template for the Arabian Nights saga. In 1258 the Mongols obliterated Baghdad and ended the Arab dominance of Islam, setting the stage for the Ottomans to take over the caliphate. It's very interesting to consider that despite Arabic being the official language of Islam and the thing that unites practitioners, there are deep nationalistic rivalries inside the religion, stretching back centuries. Studying Islam from this period helps illuminate what's going on now.

I stole the map from this site.

6. The Angevin Empire, 1154-1216. This ephemeral empire was formed mainly because Henry II of England married well. In 1152, Henry, the duke of Anjou, married Eleanor, duchess of Aquitaine. Eleanor had, two months earlier, divorced Louis VII of France because he was too effete for a man-lovin' woman like Eleanor (okay, who knows why they divorced - my reason is fun!). In 1154, to end England's civil war between King Stephen and Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I, Stephen agreed to name Henry (Matilda's son) as heir. When Stephen died, Henry became king of England. As he held the title of dozens of counties and duchies and whatnot in France and, through Eleanor, more vast land, he became the most powerful ruler in Europe. Hey, that was handy. Henry was the first Platagenet ruler, and with his wife, he had quite the blast, if the history books are to be believed. Of course, he had his best friend killed, but what are you going to do? He also pissed off Eleanor more than once, to the point where she helped her sons rebel against their father, and when Peter O'Toole - I mean, Henry - finally died, Richard and then John ruled after him. Richard, of course, is famous for going on crusade and making nice with Robin Hood in that Disney movie, while John is famous for being a lousy king and losing most of the "empire" that his father had created. It was never an "empire" in the sense of being one administrative state, as each of Henry's possessions had their own culture and governments, but it fun while it lasted!

From here is where I got the map.

7. The Holy Roman/Austrian/Austro-Hungarian Empire, 962-1918. The weirdest empire on this list, the Holy Roman Empire was technically founded by Otto the Great in 962, although ol' Otto tried to link his empire to Charlemagne's as a lot of people did back then. The empire was kept alive through several weak rulers, with only a few rising up to make any impression (Frederick Barbarossa, Frederick II) until the Habsburgs took over in the middle of the 15th century. Under Charles V (1519-1555) the empire reached the height of its power, but from then it declined. After Napoleon put it out of its misery in 1806, it transformed into a Habsburg-run Austrian empire, which became a joint monarchy with Hungary in 1867. It's an interesting empire to study, because it was such a lousy one. The emperor was rarely invested with any power, and unless he had a strong personality, he was helpless against the princes who elected him. Later, after Austria-Hungary became the center of the the empire, it became a baroque monstrosity, the most conservative state in turbulent times. Of course, it was the assassination of the heir to the throne of the empire that sparked the First World War. I have read more than one book that suggests the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary was the worst thing that could have happened for the Balkan nationalities. I don't know if I agree with that theory, but it's certainly something to chew on!

I found the second map here.

8. The German Empire, 1871-1918. I've always been keen on the German Empire, or "second Reich," as a certain Austrian dictator liked to call it. I read a biography of Otto von Bismarck years ago, and it was one of the better history books I've ever read. Plus, Napoleon III's wild ambitions and ruination in 1870-71 (see below) have also fascinated me (as has the Commune, but that's a whole different thing). When I was growing up, I used to read hardcover comics from England that had all kinds of neat stories in them (I lived in Germany, remember). One was about the Commune and how the French tried to get out of Paris during the siege. I guess it hooked me. Bismarck is an intriguing politician, and his relationship with both Wilhelm I and II is very interesting. Germany's escalation of the arms race in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is one of the great tragedies of modern times. It wasn't all Germany's fault, of course, but Wilhelm II was such an odd popinjay that it makes World War I look inevitable. It's a much more interesting state than it gets credit for.

I need to point out that the map came from here.

9. The Second French Empire, 1852-1870. Speaking of the Germans, the emperor that the Germans defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon III, ran this empire. He created it and then ran it into the ground. Napoleon, who was the first emperor's nephew, became the president after the 1848 revolution, and then decided to declare himself emperor. Under Napoleon III, France aggressively pursued more colonies in Africa, and Napoleon also tried to establish a client state in Mexico. This, of course, led to the celebration of Cinco de Mayo. Napoleon got in over his head when he declared war on Prussia, leading to utter defeat and his abdication. Napoleon, interestingly enough, was the first president and last monarch of France. The Second Empire is more interesting than the First, because the latter Napoleon was so much more of a schmuck than the original. The fact that he ruled France for 20 years is rather odd.

10. The Japanese Empire. Japan has always been an empire, but I'm keen on the Meiji Restoration era (from 1868) until the war. Japan adopted Western ways, expanded into the Pacific, and beat the snot out of everyone who got in their way. The Japanese did horrible things, especially in China, but the fact that they adapted so quickly to the modern world is very interesting. They wiped out the Russians in 1904, and in the Thirties took over the Pacific. What's most interesting is the way the West attempted to get around their natural racism to explain the rise of Japan. The Japanese war effort is also fascinating, because they could have easily won "their" war without involving the Americans. I like older Japanese history, too, but not as much as this period.

So those are my favorite empires. Empires are awfully swell. Does anyone out there have any favorite empires?

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You know what day it is!

Well, maybe you don't. It's my anniversary! Yes, I've been married 14 years today. FOURTEEN! That's, like, a long time. Well, okay, it's not as long as, say, my parents, who have been married for 41 years. It's not as long as it's been since a Philadelphia team won a major championship in sports. But heck, it's been a while!

I love being married. I encourage it for everyone. Krys and I are extremely happy, and I think we're happier every day. Well, I know I am. Krys says she is, and who am I to disbelieve her? We have a great relationship, and we have two wonderful kids. I think we've gotten stronger because of what happened to Mia, even though it negatively affects so much in our life. It's made us better parents, certainly, but I think it has also made us understand each other more. There's nothing I wouldn't do for her, naturally, but it's more than that. We were friends before our marriage, and we took years before we were ready for children. I think that helped a lot, because it prepared us for parenthood.

So it's been 14 great years, and we're looking forward to the next 1400. That's right - we're planning on living forever! How can I rule the world well unless I stick around???? Bwah-ha-ha-ha!!!!!

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Stripping: the world's oldest art form?

I'm back from SoCal in time to catch this story, which puzzles me a bit. A case is in front of a judge of Hamburg County, Iowa. This case involves a 17-year-old girl, who happens to be the niece of the local sheriff, and Iowa's law against all-nude stripping. This girl, who snuck into the club, decided to climb up on stage one night a year ago and take off all her clothes. I know - it used to happen all the time in my high-school cafeteria, so why not at a club? The owner, desperate to avoid an indecent exposure charge (plus, probably feeling a bit skeevy that an underaged girl stripped in his club), claimed that Iowa's law doesn't apply because his club is a "theater, concert hall, art center, museum, or similar establishment" devoted to the arts or theatrical performances. In Iowa, you see, one can strip, as long as it's "classy." The club owner's lawyer noted that the club sells collectible posters and other art, so it falls under this umbrella. Of course, the district attorney thinks that's crap. The owner's lawyer cites a 1998 case in which the owner of a theater was found not guilty for allowing nude dancing. Will the nude dancing case make it to the Iowa Supreme Court? Only time will tell!

Here's what I don't get. I'm all for nude dancing, despite never having actually been to strip club (to my eternal shame!!!!). If women (or men, for that matter) want to take their clothes off, go for it. I don't understand why this isn't a cut-and-dried case of some kind of "corruption of minors" thing? I mean, this girl is obviously already corrupted, but why does the club owner have any leg to stand on in that regard? Is it okay if the underaged girl is the one doing the corrupting? Can the district attorney not prosecute him if the girl did it willingly? Beats me.

It's always good to see our country's obsession/neurosis about nudity and sex rear its head. I wonder how the case will play out. I'm sure those salt-of-the-earth fine Americans in the heartland really want nude dancing, man! Power to the people!

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My kind of pedicure

I don't know if you've seen this on a talk show, or if it's made it into your local newspaper (it made it into ours today), but I'm dying to go to Yvonne's Nail Salon in Alexandria, VA. It's the home of the fish pedicure!

Yes, the latest in pedicure technology is using garra rufa, known as doctor fish, on the customers. Yvonne's uses them to - wait for it - clean the customer's feet. The fish eat the dead skin off your feet, and then you get a traditional pedicure afterward. They started it because of fears about the sanitation of the razors they used, and they also claim it gets the feet even cleaner than a traditional razor. Shockingly, there are no rules about regulating fish pedicures, so they're all right for now, and the procedure is wildly popular. Wildly popular, say I! Of course, this has been done in Europe and Asia for years. Those wacky Asians and Europeans - always ahead of the curve!

I'd love to do this. Once I get past the fact that the fish are eating dead skin (and, let's be honest, I long ago got over the fact that living things are constantly feasting on me), I think it'd be keen. Of course, I'm on record as stating how much I love pedicures, so this would just be another way to experience one. It's certainly something different!

I've been slacking a bit for the past week, and I apologize to my loyal readers. I'm going to the San Diego comic convention for the next two days, but I should be back to some kind of reasonable posting schedule next week. Sorry for the dearth of stuff!

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What I've been reading

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield by Kenneth D. Ackerman. 551 pages, 2003, Carroll & Graf Publishers.

Long-time readers of the blog may recall that I absolutely adore the Gilded Age. It is by far my favorite time period of American history. One problem with this era (let's say the end of the Civil War, 1865, to the beginning of the United States' involvement in World War I, 1917) is that there aren't a lot of books written about it, or at least books you can find in your average bookstore. I mean, there's plenty written about Theodore Roosevelt (not that there's anything wrong with that), but there's a lot more to the time period than Teddy, right? I mean, that Grover Cleveland - he was a pretty neat, guy, right? Where's his biography???? (Okay, they exist. But you get my point!) The other big topic of "Gilded Age" writing is the expansion of the white man into red man territory. Again, there's nothing wrong with that, but I'm a bit sick of George Custer.

So I was happy to see this book, as Garfield's assassination is probably the least well-known of all the presidential killings. Granted, there have only been four of them, but Lincoln's, McKinley's, and Kennedy's are of much more interest to the general public, even if McKinley's is only such because he was succeeded by Roosevelt. I mean, Garfield was succeeded by Chester A. Arthur, whose name does not resound in the Presidential Pantheon (although he, as well as Garfield, probably doesn't get as much respect as they ought to). I certainly didn't know much about Garfield's life and death, and even after reading Assassination Vacation, I didn't, as Vowell focused more on Charles Guiteau, the assassin, than Garfield himself. This book doesn't focus on Garfield's life as much as it focuses on the events surrounding his nomination and brief presidency, and it's a fascinating read.

Ackerman begins with an argument in 1866. Two titans of the late 19th-century American political scene, Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York and Senator James Blaine of Maine, got into an argument over a piece of a bill, and this tiny little disagreement escalated into a name-calling donnybrook on the Senate floor. Both men were extremely proud, and this argument led to a lifetime of acrimony that influenced the political course of the country. It's fun to read about these bitter fights in Congress because these days, everyone is so polite. Sure, the two parties don't agree with each other and take shots at the policies of their opponents, but Conkling and Blaine were both Republicans, for one, and it's rare that one senator calls another from the same party a liar in public, as Conkling did to Blaine that day in April 1866. That's just a taste of the political scene during the Gilded Age, where the men spoke high-mindedly but were far more insulting than they are today.

Then we flash to the Republican Convention in Chicago in late May 1880. Remember when conventions were held in late May? Okay, probably not. The other interesting thing about conventions back in those days was that no one knew who the nominee was. There were no primaries, so the two parties just got together to decide on a candidate. In 1880, the Republican party had developed a rift between the "Stalwarts," those who supported Ulysses Grant's bid for a third term as president, and "Half-Breeds," those who didn't back Grant because of the scandals of his two terms. Grant had left office in 1877, but in the years since, he had become more popular, mainly because of the ineffectiveness of Rutherford Hayes, the man who replaced him. Conkling was Grant's biggest supporter, and he threw the weight of the New York Republican machine behind him. James Blaine, who had run for president in 1876, was another candidate, representing those who wanted to move past Grant. John Sherman, the Secretary of the Treasury (and brother of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman), was the dark horse candidate. He counted among his supporters James Garfield, the senator-elect from Ohio.

The backroom dealings of the parties is fascinating to read about, especially because the actual wannabe candidates back then didn't attend the convention - campaigning was considered unseemly. So their proxies campaigned for them, and they had to convince delegates to throw their lot in with a certain candidate. Sherman didn't have much support, but it was hoped that he could swing the nomination one way or the other. Conkling had heard rumblings about a group of Republican delegates from New York breaking from him and not supporting Grant, something he could not abide. Parties ran things with iron fists back then - you voted for a party, not really a candidate - and the idea of New York Republicans breaking with their party boss was astonishing. Yet break they did, as did delegates from two other supposedly "solid" Grant states - Illinois and Pennsylvania. Without all of the delegates from those states, neither Grant nor Blaine got enough votes on the first ballot to secure the nomination, and led to more wrangling.

Garfield was a long shot to get the nomination, obviously, as he was actually in Chicago as a supporter of Sherman. As the balloting went on (this was the longest Republican convention, at 36 ballots; Democrats needed a two-thirds majority to select a nominee, so many of theirs went longer), Garfield suddenly became a viable compromise candidate. Blaine would never allow his delegates to support Grant because of his vitriol toward Conkling, and Garfield was seen as someone whom Blaine would support. When his name was first mentioned, Garfield actually protested, but soon the support for him became a groundswell. Unbelievably, Garfield became the nominee, and as a compromise, he picked Chester Arthur, Conkling's protégé, as his running mate. Actually, based on the rules of the day, the convention picked Arthur. Garfield had no choice in the matter.

Ackerman then has to bring Charles Guiteau into the proceedings, which he does efficiently. Guiteau was a huge fan of Conkling and the New York Republican Party, and he began writing speeches in order to get the Garfield/Arthur ticket elected. He even wrote a speech that he later claimed was crucial to Garfield's win. He hung out at the headquarters of the campaign and spoke often to Arthur, believing that he was friends with the vice presidential candidate. Of course, he barely registered with the higher-ups of the party, although they later recalled speaking to him. Ackerman makes the point that patronage was the way business got done in 19th-century politics, and Guiteau was just doing what many others did - he helped out the campaign with the expectation that he would be rewarded in the new regime. Of course, he was basically a nobody, so that probably wouldn't happen, but it didn't stop Guiteau from believing that he was more important than he really was.

Garfield won the election, of course, and then his problems began. He had to satisfy two powerful members of the party who hated each other - Blaine and Conkling. As he had Arthur as a vice president, he offered the job of Secretary of State to Blaine, which angered Conkling, as that position was far more important than that of VP back in the day. Conkling was peeved that Rutherford Hayes had fired Arthur as Collector of the Port of New York, the most lucrative job in the civil service, and he wanted one of his men installed in that post. Garfield balked at it even though the Stalwarts claimed he had promised it to them. When this became public knowledge, it sent Guiteau over the edge. Ackerman makes it clear that Guiteau didn't shoot Garfield because he didn't get the job he wanted; he shot him because he believed Garfield was screwing his "friend" Chester Arthur and Arthur's mentor Conkling.

Garfield became more revered for standing up to Conkling and garnered sympathy after he was shot. Ackerman goes into detail about the doctors basically killing Garfield with their inept care, as they often stuck unwashed hands into the wound and didn't even know where the bullet was until they did a postmortem examination. Arthur, of course, was horrified that Guiteau shot the president because he wanted Arthur to succeed to the office. The mood in the country was ugly for months afterward, because most people resented Arthur and his boss, Conkling. When Garfield defied the New York senator, Conkling resigned his seat in protest. Back then, senators were appointed by the state legislatures, and Conkling just assumed he would be sent back in triumph. The legislature, however, sent a different man, breaking Conkling's power. Arthur distanced himself from Conkling and gained a measure of respect from the country at large. It didn't help him in 1884, and he wasn't nominated.

The book is riveting, not only for the story Ackerman tells, but the little facts he drops into the narrative about the way politics worked 120 years ago. We learn about the backroom deals, the patronage system that Guiteau inadvertently destroyed (Hayes had begun reforming the civil service, but Arthur took it further and created a meritocracy), and how conventions and elections worked. Ackerman gives us an interesting statistic: almost 80% of those eligible voted in the 1880 election (of course, women weren't eligible, but that's still an impressive number). He also writes extensively about the Republicans' relationship with black voters, as this was a time when the Republicans were the party of the black man and the Democrats were often connected to ex-Confederates. This is only four years after Reconstruction ended, after all, and the ex-Confederates were re-asserting their power in the South. It's interesting reading some of the statements the Republicans made about African-Americans, because many of the politicians said things that some of today's Republicans would find reprehensible and some of today's Democrats would agree with. It's a fascinating shift.

There's a ton to like about the book, and I encourage everyone in this political season to read it (or at least a political book!). I mean, a senator who resigns with Conkling got caught having sex with a prostitute in his hotel room, and other legislators lined up to take turns looking at him through the transom. That's pretty awesome. It gives us a glimpse into a relatively forgotten age of American politics, shows us that many powerful people in American politics were not president (in case you didn't already know that; Conkling and Blaine were very powerful kingmakers), sheds new light on a president who showed a great deal of potential in only a few months in office, and is surprisingly tense even though we know how it ends. It's easy and fun to read yet is amazingly complex. I blazed through it, and you can too!

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Have Americans lost their sense of humor?

The New Yorker cover depicting Barack Obama as a Muslim and Michelle Obama as a terrorist has sparked a bit of idiotic controversy around these parts. Barack Obama has come out and said that it doesn't bother him but it's insulting to Muslims. Some people have come out and said that this kind of satire shouldn't be allowed. Yes, in the land of the First Amendment, this sort of thing shouldn't be allowed. Sigh.

As Leonard Pitts points out in his latest column, satire is tricky. If people take you seriously, things get ugly. That's what has happened with the Obama cover. However, if people take you seriously when it's something as over the top as this, they start looking ridiculous.

It's obvious that this cover is meant as satire. It's so over-the-top that I should be surprised that anyone is taking it seriously. Does anyone really think that the artist is trying to say that Obama is a Muslim and his wife is a terrorist? Especially after that news commentator (wasn't she on Fox News?) who wondered, on the air, whether Obama fist-bumping his wife was a "terrorist fist jab"? The artist is obviously poking fun at all the people who think that this is what an Obama presidency would look like - Barack and Michelle cackling in the Oval Office while burning the flag under a picture of Osama bin Laden. That's the problem with satire in today's world - there are FAR too many people who believe this is exactly what will happen when Obama wins.

That's the problem with satire. People for centuries have failed to "get it" - as Pitts points out when he mentions that people in 1729 took Jonathan Swift seriously when he suggested that starving people should eat babies - but these days, with the proliferation of media outlets and voices from the fringe being taken seriously, it's harder for people to see when someone is poking fun at the conceits. I heard recently that my pal Michael Savage thinks an Obama presidency would lead to a sort of "Cultural Revolution" ... and he was totally serious. I imagine Savage looked at this cover and said, "Yeah, that seems about right." Pitts even mentions that he has gotten e-mails from people expressing this sentiment. The wackos on the fringe have a voice, and unfortunately, it's often louder than those people who aren't crazy. Not crazy people have things to do in this world, like go to real jobs, raise real families, and worry about whether they can make the mortgage payment. The wackos who live in bunkers and whose only expense is an Internet connection don't have to worry about that sort of thing. They can spend all day ranting about how Barack Obama signalled to his Muslim brethren that America is ripe for the picking when he tapped fists with his wife.

What's sad is that these wackos force Obama and McCain to take this seriously. As Jon Stewart pointed out the other day, "Barack Obama is in no way be upset about the cartoon that depicts him as a Muslim extremist, because you know who gets upset about cartoons? Muslim extremists."

I understand that things are offensive, and that no one but the person offended can say that it's wrong. However, this isn't a shot at Obama and his wife, and they have to know that. It's sad that in America today, we have lost any sense of irony and sense of humor that people are up in arms about this. Wouldn't it be nice if people understood what is going on here?

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Great songs, according to me (Part 38)

Yes, I keep on truckin' with the great songs, according to me! You can't stop me! Let's link to the previous installments, and then get to it: Parts 1-15, Parts 16-30, Part 31, Part 32, Part 33, Part 34, Part 35, Part 36, and Part 37. And now ... ten more songs!

371. My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It) (by En Vogue on the album Funky Divas, 1992): This album is very good, thanks to strong tunes like this, a great pop single that feels older and more classic than it actually is. The ladies of En Vogue cruise nastily through the song, kissing off their potential mates who don't respect them, and the doo-wop bit at the end is amazing. They often blended well in their songs, but rarely did they do it better than on this, as they flipped back and forth throughout, creating a rich tapestry of vocals. Plus, it's a funky little groove.

372. My Name Is Prince (by Prince on the album that has the weird symbol thing as a name, 1992): This album marked the end, really, of Prince's dominance of the charts. It had a few singles that charted, but after Diamonds and Pearls, Prince kind of fell off the pop culture map. Which is a shame, because this weird concept album and The Gold Experience (1995) are two of the better albums Prince has in his catalogue, and this song kicks it all off. It's a hard-rocking dance tune with a shocking change for the Purple One, in that he raps. Plus, he has a "guest rapper" as well. It's a celebratory song about himself, of course, but it's musically amazing, somewhat coarse (I know, another shock), and quite fun. Prince takes a nice shot at Michael Jackson along the way, too. It shows what Prince can do both sonically (the guitar is astonishing) and lyrically (he mixes God in, as usual, and manages to to be spiritual and profane, often in the same verse). It's too bad Prince is known only for the stuff he did in the 1980s, because the Nineties were a marvelous decade creatively for him.

373. Mysterious Ways (by U2 on the album Achtung Baby, 1991): Do I really need to write about how great this song is? This was the first U2 album I bought (I liked The Joshua Tree, but never bought it, and then Krys had it when we got together, so that took care of that), and it was partly because of this song. It's got that great funky vibe and those great lyrics ("If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel"), and it just gets inside you and twists you around. U2 was never better than this album (and yes, I do like The Joshua Tree), and "Mysterious Ways" is a big reason why.

374. The Name Of The Game (by ABBA on the album The Album, 1977): This is a lesser-known ABBA song, but it's still a great one. It reflects the latter-day ABBA in that the sad songs are a bit sadder than earlier in their career (1974-75), where they were more likely to sing songs about breaking up with a snarky attitude. This is the work of more mature songwriters, as the music is weightier than earlier songs, and the lyrics show a more jaundiced view toward relations between lovers: "And you make me talk/And you make me feel/And you make me show/What I'm trying to conceal/If I trust in you/Would you let me down/Would you laugh at me/If I said I care for you/Could you feel the same way too/I wanna know the name of the game." The music begins with a dark, jazzy groove, and then soars along with Agnetha and Frida's despairing harmonizing. It's just another marvelous song from everyone's favorite Swedish supergroup.

375. Nashville (by Indigo Girls on the album Rites Of Passage, 1992): As you may know, I'm not a huge fan of country music, but the Indigo Girls are more folksy, so when they write a song about Nashville, it transcends genre and becomes a great song. Musically, the song is nothing special (jangly, twangy guitars - you know what it sounds like!), but Amy's scratchy vocals and the lyrics about the way the town seduces you and then betrays you makes this a great tune. It's a song of failure, which is unusual, as we usually get a defiant tone from the singer unless it's a love song. The singer in "Nashville" has been defeated, and it lends a certain gravitas to the song and makes it much more interesting.

376. Nervous Breakthrough (by Luscious Jackson on the album Electric Honey, 1999): This is the first track off of this album, and I absolutely love it. It's too bad it's the first track, because there's no place to go but down (although "Ladyfingers," the second track, is almost as good, and then there's an unfortunate drop in quality). "Nervous Breakthrough" begins with a funky street scene sound, with a whirring beat that draws you slowly into the song. Then the horns start, and so do the vocals: "Sometimes somebody can bring you down so far, below anywhere you've gone ..." The lyrics are stellar, reminding us that "all the best things make you nervous, and all the best things come in disguise." Throughout, the beat keeps things breezy, providing a groovy foundation for a hopeful song. It's a pop song, sure, but an excellent one.

377. Never A Time (by Genesis on the album We Can't Dance, 1991): A fine love song on the "last" Genesis album (the 1995 one doesn't count), this song is somewhat like the schlockiest of the Phil Collins love songs, but Collins, whenever he's with the band, seems to rein in his mawkish tendencies and actually write good love songs, and this is one of them. The music is typical - lush Tony Banks string arrangements, smooth jazzy Mike Rutherford guitar - but Phil manages to sing the fine lyrics earnestly, not with a wink (the problem with many of his solo tunes), and we believe him when he says, "It's a long long way to fall when we both thought we had it all ..." This is an excellent example of a return to form for Genesis on this album after the overwrought Invisible Touch.

378. Never Satisfied (by Living Colour on the album Stain, 1993): This might be Living Colour's best album, but it was their poorest-selling and last for a decade, which is a shame. It gets them back to a hard-rock edge after Time's Up (which is a good album, but somehow off), and this song exemplifies that kind of vibe. Corey Glover snarls the lyrics, and the chorus is a celebration of nastiness: "I will never be satisfied until it ends it tears." But it's also a sad song, as Glover is despairing his awful lot in life. Meanwhile, Vernon Reid's guitar brings the right amount of fuzz and crunch to the song. It's a great song on a very good album. Too bad it didn't sell!

379. Neverland (by Marillion on the album Marbles, 2004): I can't seem to make it through one of these lists without a Marillion song, so I apologize for that. I just love them so much! This is the most recent great song I have on this list, because I made this list back in 2004 and haven't had a chance to update it yet. It's the final song on this double album, and it begins with a beautiful piano introduction and musically rises to a stellar guitar solo and then back down to a quiet ending. Lyrically is where the song shines, though, as Steve Hogarth tells a gorgeous love story about being a better person because of someone else's love: "At times like these, any fool can see your love inside me." He winds his way through a Peter Pan metaphor and ends triumphantly. It's the kind of song that is great on its own, but its position on the album makes it even better.

380. Next To You (by The Police on the album Outlandos D'Amour, 1978): I'm not the biggest Police fan, but their first album is pretty darned good, and this, the first song, sets a great tone. It's a love song, sure, but it has a good snotty punk vibe to it, and Sting has yet to become the pompous pretentious blowhard he later became. It's not a terribly important song, but for just under 3 minutes, you get a pure piece of music, and there's nothing wrong with that!

I know I am posting these a bit more slowly than I used to, but I hope nobody minds. Considering my tiny audience, I don't think there will be much of an uproar. But as usual, if you want to tell me how very wrong I am, feel free! I can take it!

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My new favorite sport!

I was reading the latest issue of ESPN: The Magazine and saw something fascinating. On page 41, tucked away in the bottom left corner, was a brief about tchoukball. What the hell is tchoukball, you ask? Well, that's a fine question. According to the short piece, it's "a noncontact sport in which players throw balls at trampoline-like nets." Sure, that sounds groovy, but if you want to see it, go here to download some videos. Here is the American web site, and here are the rules. Now I want to play!

(It's pronounced "chookball," by the way. Because it's awesome.)



What I've been reading

Nanjing 1937: A Love Story by Ye Zhaoyan. 355 pages, 1996 (translated by Michael Berry, 2002), Faber and Faber Limited.

Before I get into this, I should point out that this is my last book in the alphabet. I read my books in alphabetical order by author, because I'm weird. Well, actually, it's because I buy so many books (and yes, I know I should stop, but I love books) that I found I would read books I bought more recently and ignore books I bought further in the past that I hadn't gotten a chance to read yet. So I decided to simply read my books in alphabetical order. I break the pattern occasionally, but for probably a decade I've been doing it. This is my second time through the alphabet, and now I have to go back to the beginning. I've already started a new book by an "A" author. It's oddly gratifying finishing the alphabet and going back to start over, even though it's a somewhat arbitrary way to read my books. But I feel good. And isn't that all that matters?

So let's delve into this book. As you can tell by the subtitle, it's a romance, and it's one of the odder ones you might ever read. It's certainly not bad, just ... odd. I'll get to that. I should say something about the writing style. I'm not sure if it's the translation (probably), but Ye's prose is often difficult to get through. Obviously, the story of Nanjing in 1937 is well known, especially to the Chinese, so Ye doesn't feel the need to explain some of what's going on in the grander scheme of things with the Japanese and the Chinese. We do get plenty of historical context, but there are some odd references to events that we're expected to understand, and I assume if we were Chinese, we would. The prose itself is occasionally turgid, and again, I have no idea if it reads differently in the original language. The heavy hand of the third-person narrator is evident very often, and sometimes it feels as if Ye is guiding his characters through the narrative rather than letting things play out naturally. It's a fairly dense novel, so Ye has to keep track of several main characters, so it doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would as I kept reading, but it's tough to get into. There's your fair warning!

Nanjing 1937 tells the story of Ding Wenyu and his strange love for Ren Yuyuan. Ye begins his story on the first of January and follows Ding throughout the year. Ding first sees Yuyuan at her wedding to Yu Kerun, a rising star in the Chinese air force. This is, naturally, a problem, but Ding is an unusual person. He's 20 years older than Yuyuan, and spent several years in Europe after lusting after Yuyuan's older sister two decades before. He has a amazing ability to learn languages, and has spent his life womanizing and wandering around the world. When he returns, he becomes a professor in Nanjing and builds a reputation as a eccentric fellow who ignores all social conventions. This is evident from the wedding, where he stares inappropriately as Yuyuan for several minutes while gossip swirls around him. This begins the strange romance between the worldly professor and the naïve young soldier (Yuyuan is a confidential secretary in the army).

It's not what you think, though. Ding becomes more and more obsessed with Yuyuan, but he doesn't pursue her. He begins writing love letters to her, usually more than one a day, and delivering them to her. Yuyuan is the model of propriety, however, and she never responds to the letters. She simply reads them and keeps them, but the fact that she never leads Ding on and, in fact, tells him whenever she sees him that she isn't interested and finds him ridiculous doesn't deter him at all. His father forces him to marry the daughter of an important steel magnate, but Ding ignores her and the story of their divorce forms part of Ding's attempts to form a relationship with Yuyuan. Yuyuan's own marriage is far from perfect, as Yu Kerun is immature and besotted with the fame of being a star pilot, using his celebrity to pick up whatever woman he chooses. Ding also has an interesting relationship with a rickshaw driver, Monk, whom he always used to search the city for prostitutes. Once he meets Yuyuan, however, he swears off his former lifestyle and dedicates himself to his love for her.

Ding is a fascinating character, because of the cultural differences between the 1930s and today and between China and the U. S. Ye continually narrates how ridiculous he is, sending two, three, or even four love letters a day to Yuyuan, staring at her inappropriately whenever he sees her, telling her how much he loves her and how his love is totally spiritual and beyond the realm of the flesh. Everyone in the book feels that he's ridiculous, too. However, we come to realize how noble he really is - yes, he wants to divorce his wife, but only because it was an arranged marriage, and he never cheats on her anyway. He's speaking truly when he says that his love for Yuyuan is totally spiritual - he never tries to pry her away from Yu Kerun, and he never makes any moves on her. The other characters in the novel act far worse than Ding does, yet in the eyes of society, he's the one who acts horribly. Yu Kerun flaunts his affairs, even moving in with a girlfriend late in the novel, but because he's a hero, his poor treatment of his wife is overlooked. What makes Ding fascinating, as Yuyuan comes to realize late in the book, is that instead of worrying about everyone liking him, all he cares about is making sure that Yuyuan is happy. Everyone else is concerned with their image, but Ding simply doesn't. This makes him seem ridiculous, when in fact he is the most steadfast person in the book.

Ye introduces several subplots that help illuminate the main relationship. Monk, the rickshaw driver, is besotted with a young girl, and her mother (with whom he's having an affair) offers her in marriage. When she rejects him, he reacts far differently than Ding does, and the subtle commentary is that the low-class Monk is less deserving of love than the upper-class Ding. This also shows the two ways obsession can turn - ugly, like in Monk's case, or ethereal, like Ding's. Yu Kerun, who cannot relate to Yuyuan in any meaningful way, falls in with Qu Manli, a teenaged girl who traps him into a more tightly-knit relationship than his own marriage. She doesn't want to marry Yu, but she does want him to divorce Yuyuan so that she can toy with him without guilt. It's ironic that Yu Kerun, who treats his wife so poorly, finds himself ensnared by a woman with far more guile than Yuyuan. Only then does he begin to realize what a fine woman she is, but by then it's too late.

As Yuyuan's marriage falls apart, she can't help but be drawn to Ding and his abiding love. Ye continues to refer to the political events in China during 1937, as the year saw the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Yuyuan is in the army, so when the government abandons Nanjing (it was the capital of China at the time), she must stay behind as part of the last-ditch effort to stop the Japanese advance. Ding, naturally, stays with her. Ye refers to the major events of the year, such as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, and several historical personages appear in the book. As the book moves toward its conclusion, we keep wondering how Ye will write about the horrors of the Rape of Nanking. Ye, however, chooses an interesting way to end the book that allows him to avoid it. Ding and Yuyuan must make horrible choices, of course, and any book set in this city in this year can't really end well, but the ending is unusual in that it's far more "real" than what we might expect, in that it's somewhat random. That's the way life is, after all.

This is a difficult novel to get into, mostly (I think) because of the translation. Once you do get into it, however, it's a rewarding love story, because it's unlike most romances you read. In most love stories, something is keeping the lovers apart, but in this book, the obstacles aren't contrived, like they often are in romances. In this novel, the culture itself is against the lovers, and Ye does a marvelous job showing how oppressive that culture is. We can wonder why these people couldn't get together, but we're approaching it from a different cultural perspective. As we read, Ye makes it clear why this romance is so difficult for the two of them. It's a tragic story, yes, but it's also somewhat inspiring. Nanjing in 1937 wasn't torn by war until the very end of the year, so it's not like Ding and Yuyuan are struggling through violence, but they are struggling to find something more than war, and almost everything is against them, including everyone they know. As we move toward the inevitability of the ending, we can't help be caught up in the nobility of Ding's feelings toward Yuyuan and Yuyuan's struggle to accept them. It's a wonderful romance and a powerful novel about a desperate time in Chinese history.

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