September 14, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: Things to Know About Syria

I was, as a kid, an avid reader of the World Book Encyclopedia.  Our family had a nice set of volumes bound in white leather which my parents bought from Mr. Moses, who had been a PE teacher at one of the schools I attended.  It was strange to see Mr. Moses in our living room making his pitch, but, then as now, American society tends to denigrate primary teachers and pays them accordingly.  Mr. Moses was just going door-to-door to help make ends meet.

Anyway, I found you could learn a lot just by leafing through the World Book's colorful pages.  It was a good way to get oriented on a new subject: atomic energy, how an internal combustion engine works, types of wheat grown in Kansas.  In modern times, we can use the on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia; we can, as the kids say, Wikipedia that shit whenever a new topic comes up.

Such as Syria.  There is what I regard as a pretty good entry on Syria in Wikipedia.  It sets the stage for the question: should we bomb it?

I take as my point of departure that the "official discussion," the back and forth between our boring Secretary of State, John Kerry, whose heart bleeds Heinz Ketchup for the gassed Syrians (h/t: Linh Dinh, one of our most talented writers that you've never heard of) and Vladimir "The Gangster" Putin.  The public announcements which President Barack Obama has been asked to make by whoever it is that controls the United States are all by way of distraction and propaganda.  We're not going to bomb Syria "to teach Bashar al-Assad a lesson" about using Sarin gas on his fellow Syrians. We're not worried about "red lines" being crossed, because they're not being crossed here in the U. S. and A. (h/t: Borat).

Lacking an official rationale, or even an apparently cogent reason, for bombing Syria, should we nevertheless do it?  This is another way of asking: would it do any good?

This is where I think Wikipedia comes in.  What kind of country would we be bombing this time?  First of all, Syria is a dry, hot and crowded country with a burgeoning population and dwindling resources (sort of like Earth itself).  In 1960, when Syria was still a member of  Nasser's socialist United Arab Republic (mostly, Syria and Egypt), Syria had a population of about 4 million.  That was 50 years ago.  Today the population is 22 million.  Economically, Syria relies on agriculture and hydrocarbon production.  Its oil fields are contiguous to and part of the same geological formation as Iraq's northern fields in Mosul and Kirkuk.  However, Syria's oil production is in serious decline. As recently as 1995 its oil production was about 600,000 barrels per day; today the figure is around 140,000 barrels a day.  A country where the population increases by 500% while its cash cow dries up and yields no more milk is a country circling the drain, to mix a bunch of metaphors, such as a wizened cow circling your bathtub drain. I mean, who needs that?

Syria is about half the size of California in land area, with a population about two-thirds the size of the Golden State.  Syria's latitudes (between about 32 degrees N. and 35 degrees) place it on a level with the area from Tijuana to Los Angeles, if that helps.  It became Muslim, predominantly, in about 640 A.D, so that looks like a stable trend.  What we call Syria's international borders are the usual fabrication by imperial powers (the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France after World War I) enacted after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Whether the Alawite sect, the Sunni, the Shia, the Coptics, the Christians, the Jews, the Kurds and the usual mishmash of ethnic odds and ends can ever form any kind of coherent democracy is an open question.  Certainly, on a Wikipedia-based analysis, the prospects are far from certain.  Bashar al-Assad, the current potentate, inherited the presidency from his father Hafez, who participated in the military coup in 1963 that overthrew the UAR leadership and installed the current Ba'ath dynasty.  You'll recall "Ba'ath" from Saddam Hussein's peeps.  One must admit that it doesn't sound like a democracy when presidents inherit the position from their fathers; the Syrians should follow the American example and have a scion of a dynasty imposed upon the people by a Supreme Court.

Syria is riven by droughts, no doubt a harbinger of climate change dynamics that are not going to help its other main industry, agriculture.  Thus, lots of factions who hate each other, moiling poverty, poor prospects, a civil war (no doubt because of all the other factors), a de facto dictatorship.  Syria is a geographical pawn in an oil and natural gas pipeline game being played by Russia and the West, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran playing walk-on parts.  Nothing has anything to do with poison gas, other than as an excuse to drop bombs into this chaotic maelstrom in the hope that Bashar decamps to Monte Carlo with Asma so the West can install an anti-Russian tough guy and build a natural gas pipeline from Qatar to the Mediterranean so that Europe can get out from under Putin's iron hand on the spigot.  So, Vladimir Putin, whose most recently developed persona is that of an Op-Ed writer for the New York Times, is trying to finesse the U.S. out of its excuse to bomb the holy bejesus out of Saul of Tarsus's old stomping grounds, and doing a pretty good job since the Chief Executive Officer of America, Inc. was forced to dispatch John Ketchup, with his magnificent head of steel gray hair (under which resides a much less impressive brain), to Geneva to go through the motions of "securing" Syria's chemical weapons.

Yeah, that's what we want.  Anyway, thought I'd share my deep research with you, having Wikipediaed dat shit.  I don't think Syria is on my travel destination list.  Not only are they not taking me to Marrakech, tell Aleppo to forget the whole thing.

September 08, 2013

President Obama's Moue

I'm pretty sure I know where President Obama got his moue:

I only wish I had been able to google an image of Bubba Bill moue-ing alone.  Here he's moue-ing with Hillary, probably about some unfair attack on his wife:

 Where Bill's moue is a little stronger is in the inversion of the smile; he pushes up more forcefully with the lower lip, which, to be fair, seems to be a little thicker than Barack's.  Well, F= ma, so Bill, pushing forcefully up with that lower lip, can contort more of his visage into a simulacrum of sincere regret.

"Moue" is one of those almost-untranslatable French words which lose a lot when the attempt is made to define them with English words.  It is a pouting look of resignation and sadness, an expression you might wear if you thought you were about to receive something you wanted and it was taken away at the last moment. Sort of like chagrin, another Froggish word, but a little different. 

The Obama image was actually taken from a French publication which captioned it, "La Moue du President."  I had just been guessing that Barack's inverted smile might be so called in French. I suppose the French are more attuned to this sort of nuance, another French borrowing.

I've been of the opinion for a long time that President Obama's real talents lie in the dramatic arts,  and especially impersonation.  This makes him an ideal candidate in the post-modern, media-defined reality of the American present.  I don't think I've ever heard Mr. Obama say anything, off the cuff, that sounded the least bit original, insightful or even particularly useful.  His campaign speeches in 2008 were often electrifying, but I noticed even then that they bore an eerie similarity, in cadence, volume dynamics, and timing, to the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It was a little unsettling. From what I can tell, Barack was born in Honolulu, spent part of his early youth in Indonesia, then returned to Honolulu and went to high school at Punahou, then matriculated at Occidental in Southern California, then went to Columbia and Harvard, then worked in Chicago.

Where in any of that would a person pick up the soaring oratorical style of a preacher plying his trade at the Dexter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama?  From the church he attended in Chicago?  That preacher proved to be more trouble to Barack than he was worth.

Nah, I think he studied the Lincoln Memorial speech of 1963 and essentially analyzed it, internalized it, and began delivering it.  I grew up in close proximity to chataqua-style preachers (a heavy burden of my youth) and saw some pretty good ones.  A lot of it is timing.  Dr. King had it down to a T.  Once he had the audience revved up, he would not slow down or pause when the cheering and "Amen" shouting began.  On the contrary, he would accelerate, raise his voice to higher volume and soar out over the cheers and calling. The effect that MLK produced was...well, there's no other word: electrifying.  In effect, he used the reaction of the crowd as part of his own rhetorical power.  It is a master's gift.

Barack got all of that and made it his own.  Keep in mind that I recognize that as a substantial gift in itself - the ability to discern what it was that MLK was doing, how it worked, and why it was so effective.

On the other hand, the essential problem with impersonation is that it allows the audience, or voting populace, to identify you with the original (probably in an unconscious way, unless you're a blogger with a little too much time on your hands) without actually imbuing you with the talents and gifts of the original. Frank Gorshin might have sounded exactly like Jimmy Cagney, but that doesn't mean that Frank Gorshin would have been any good in "White Heat."  Imitating MLK, Jr., or pulling a Clintonian moue, may get you through this press conference, or the next invasion in the Arab world, but it doesn't actually lead the American people anywhere good.  Martin Luther King's talents just began with public oratory.  He was also a brilliant writer and a keen political mind who seemed to know exactly which buttons to push and when.  As with most geniuses, he was far out in front of his camp followers, who often thought he was going too far, too soon. 

This is certainly not a problem with President Obama.  It seems to be 2003 all over again, as he agitates for a war just about everyone recognizes is stupid, using the same tired arguments as his predecessor, the same mobilization of "serious faces" (John Kerry this time instead of Colin Powell) to sell the war, even the same jingle:  "President (fill in the name) used poison gas on his own people!  So we must invade!"

With a long way to go in Obama's second term, I think this is what a lot of American people are waking up to realize, particularly self-identified liberals.  There doesn't seem to be a There there in our "Being There" president.  It seems more like a recycling of bits and gags from previous presidencies, with all the same people running things, all the same moves, all the same wars, all the same moues.  The Hologram nominally at the center of it all leaves a power vacuum in which the vested interests of the military-industrial complex, which abide from administration to administration, can do what they want, confident that the Mimic-In-Chief will let them have their way.