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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Fallujah, Gaza, Tyre

My thoughts circle back to certain moments: waking before dawn in California on successive days and hearing Ivan Watson's reporting on civilian deaths in Tyre (here and here), the missile hole burned through the top of a Red Cross ambulance in a newspaper photo glanced at my cafe, the bitter debate and rift at that same cafe between a Polish / Israeli / Jewish-American friend of mine and a progressive Pacifica-listening / Znet-reading friend of mine...

and NPR Baghdad reporter Jamie Tarabay's unforgettable and ghastly reporting last weekend about the retrieval of bodies from the Tigris in Iraq.

These are potent stories and images and discussions. And before one's thoughts coalesce, before one's convictions harden impressions into conclusions, it seems to me that there's a responsibility simply to witness, on a human level, the bloodshed, the destruction, the loss of life, the disruption that has been visited in the Middle East on all sides these last weeks and months and years.

I inscribe the title of this essay with the names of Fallujah, Gaza and Tyre, however, to make three points.

First, it's clear that the prevailing mindset of a group whose set can only be described as the governments, citizenry and the media of Israel, the United States and Great Britain have come to see "collective responsibility" in response to terrorism as a justifiable reason to visit wholesale destruction upon a civilian population and infrastructure, whether in Palestine, Lebanon or Iraq. These three nations all possess the means, the "joint arms" of air power, artillery, and armor, that allow them (and by that I mean "us" really) to destroy a city at will. Confronted with enemies as disparate as Iraqi insurgents, Gaza militias or the more organized, and multi-national Hezbollah, it is indisputable that the militaries of our three nations are still disproportionately powerful. We are capable of a response many times greater in magnitude that what we have suffered. And such responses have become the signature of what is known as the "war on terror."

What's more, and more significant to this point, the citizens of the democracies of Israel, the United States and Great Britain have not held their leaders and militaries accountable for actually engaging in this disproportionate response. By and large, we have not demanded accountability even as these responses bear a heavy cost in civilian life and impose "collective responsibility" on a city or region. Simply put, there really has been no domestic political cost when a military says, as Israel did with Tyre, and the United States did with Fallujah: all civilians must leave this city now, and then proceed to bomb that city's infrastructure to the ground at great cost of civilian life, including those fleeing the destruction.

It goes without saying that civilians are guilty only of being residents of where they live; women and children are "guilty" of nothing. International law has very specific things to say about this matter, but this hardly seems to merit mention in the press. The "collective punishment" of civilians seems to have become an acceptable response to terror...or, more accurately, the perceived and misperceived "threat" of terror. One wonders how those who really know all the facts can even look in the mirror. The United States does not even officially track civilian deaths in Iraq. In all this, there is the violation of a basic principle that has both moral and common sense. As in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, it pays to remember that no nation should visit on others what they could never countenance done to themselves.

Take Fallujah. Operation Phantom Fury, the U.S./Iraqi assault in November of 2004, resulted in 90% of that city's 300,000 residents fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced persons. One year after the assault, this assessment made clear how the entire citizenry of Fallujah paid an enormous ongoing price for the actions of a very few. Residents are permitted to return only if they submit to biometric scanning. Think about that. How many civilians died in Fallujah? How many more have died as a result of displacement and the destruction of infrastructure? Why was Operation Phantom Fury undertaken with nary a question about its methods raised in the United States Congress or press? Given that the United States, in partnership with the nascent government of Iraq and Great Britain, has only stood idly by as thousands are murdered in ethnic bloodletting in Baghdad every month, what was the motive, the justification, for levelling Fallujah? What was gained?

Second, there is an enormous gulf in support with the rest of the world faced with these disproportionate military actions. Is it any wonder that other European nations are unwilling to send UN peacekeeping forces to Lebanon? (Something, nevertheless, that I think would be a good idea for many reasons.) Is it any surprise that the United States is mired in Iraq with almost zero support from nations other than Great Britain?

When an Apache attack helicopter (U.S.-made and supplied) launches a laser-guided missile (U.S.-made and supplied) that rips into a vanload of civilians fleeing Tyre in Lebanon or rifles down a crowded street in Gaza, how is it that the citizens of Israel and the United States cannot seem to understand the perception that image creates around the world?

There's been much talk about this gulf...especially the blindness and counter-productiveness on the part of Israel and the United States. But what strikes me in the current conflict in Lebanon is how much the United States and Israel have tactically and philosophically become one. How is Tyre different from Fallujah? How could the United States hold Israel accountable to standards that it does not follow itself? And why should Israel, in direct defense of its borders, not engage in tactics already embraced by the United States? How do the citizens of these two nations not see that they have played into a cycle of violence which they cannot ever win? Do we not realize our harshness and lack of regard play right into the hands of those who seek to recruit others to a philosophy of terror?

Something deeper and more fundamental is at the core of this: an emerging mindset.

My third and final point is the conclusion that human life is not valued nor respected equally by these three nations, not in the Middle East, and not in the rest of the world. And, at the dawn of the 21st century, it is clear that this mindset must not be allowed to prevail, especially on the part of these democracies, or we will all go down in flames.

Israel, the United States and Great Britain have all been the victims of violence against their citizens. Those who perpertrated these acts had very specific ideologies and motivations; but these perpetrators were not the whole of the Middle East or the Muslim World. Not even close.

As it stands, however, the net sum of the actions in Gaza and Lebanon and Iraq send one clear message to the world as a whole. The United States, Great Britain and Israel in acting out military strikes that coldly inflict "collective punishment" on civilians in the Middle East do not value the lives of those civilians. That is the message we send to the world.

So, my final question is this. What if we started from the opposite point of view? What if we looked at the world as a whole...including Fallujah, Gaza and Tyre...as made up of our equals? What if our actions and reactions...even reactions to the very real evils visited upon our citizens...were based upon that philosophy?

More to the point, what if we treated others, especially the citizens of nations where we are in a very real battle for hearts and minds, in the way we would want to be treated ourselves?

Friday, July 14, 2006

World Cup recap

I made what follows as a comment on Roger Cohen's World Cup blog. (Btw, he quoted me in the New York Times/Herald Tribune the other day...) Yes, there's been a glut of World Cup posts, none of them linking to the good stuff....but, since this blog is about writing, I thought you might like it:

The World Cup

Best Place to watch a match: The Red Sea, an East African restaurant in Oakland where the clientele knows how to watch a match on a single television with seventy people packed into a small room. Imo, the acceptance I found there = the true meaning of the World Cup.

Best international camraderie: a table of Latinos split between Argentinia and Mexico at the Starry Plough in Berkeley...cheering for either teams' goals.

Starkest silence: tie the end of the England/Portugal quarterfinal at the Kezar pub in San Francisco...and the lone person clapping for Italy's third goal against Ukraine at the Red Sea. (My buddy did not realize that Italy was not a "house favorite".)

Greatest joyful moment: a Dane, a Brit and a I cheered wildly as Italy defeated Germany in OT at the Red Sea...a moment that even brought closet East African Italy fans at the Red Sea to join in the celebration...which is saying something. Grosso's goal is my favorite memory of this Cup. It was perfection.

Most astonishing moment: twofold. Zidane's header in the first OT of the Final at the Valley Tavern in Noe Valley in SF. It silenced the entire crowd...and then created an audible expression of awe at the replay. (There was a large South Asian contingent...my World Cup final had very marked Indian accents.) My take: it was the meeting of two masters...Buffon vs. Zidane. The entire World Cup distilled into one moment. Zidane's body, his will...expressed in one hurtling effort...met by Buffon's outstretched hand. The shot failed? So what!? I mean...Buffon, one of my favorite goalkeepers ever, saved it. That was just amazing. Worth every second.

And Zidane's headbutt...followed by his dejected, slumped-shoulder exit from the match...walking past the Cup itself. That is something none of us will ever forget. A Nietzschean moment. (Even, imo, more than Roger Cohen's reference to Camus, though that essay was sublime and spot on!)

Most unheralded impressions: the Ivory Coast goal against Van Der Saar. perfection..an impossible shot. Pirlo's dipping free kicks. The red-headed Swiss left back: reminded me of how I used to play soccer, more guts than anything else. Maxi Rodriguez' left-footed volley...an expression of pure will.

The essence of it all: there's a woman friend of mine, a Mexican immigrant who works at the cafe I go to in the morning. Over the five years I've known her, she's learned English enough so that we converse better in English than in Spanish. We used to joke about Chivas, her favorite Mexican league team in Spanish over the years...but now we rap about the World Cup in English. She's pregnant...but she still worked during every match. Even those of Mexico.

When I would walk into the cafe during this World Cup she would look at me with a big smile. I'd ask her if she wanted "to know" and she'd always say yes.

There are things that are bigger than soccer. Her child-on-the-way, of course, the income she made while she was pregnant, and her mastery of English...halting at first and now reassured...is so much more vital than this game.

But her smile when I'd walk in the door. The camraderie of it. Is the essence of what this World Cup means to me.

We are in this together. We shared something for a month. A sport and a pastime.

As the old man with the extreme bifocals said to me as I left the Red Sea for the last time after the Germany / Portugal match...

"Wasn't that something! What did you think?"

Thursday, July 13, 2006

a visit to new york city

I went to visit Columbia U. when I was already 18 years old in the spring of 1987. I'd never been on a plane or taken a subway. I travelled alone.

Now, I had taken the Amtrak to Chicago by myself that winter to visit the University of Chicago. And before that, I'd taken the train to Winona Minnesota...just to get away from my home town of St. Paul. (I remember now that I made a bunch of black and white photocopies of Marc Chagall etchings at the Winona public library...an incident...some high school kid from St. Paul making b&w photocopies of art while visiting by train on a day trip...unlikely to have been repeated since.) Since I'd had Guillain-Barré syndrome at an age when most kids learn to drive, I didn't yet have a driver's license. So, those two trips were the total travel "experience" I took with me to New York.

My dad, out of the sheer goodness of his heart, had got me a last minute "red eye" flight to NYC when the financial aid package had come through. (Thanks, Mrs. Astor.) I flew to Chicago at midnight. Connected at 2AM. I flew to Newark at dawn.

So, spring of '87 I arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 7AM from Newark with one phone number in my pocket. First, I used the restroom. Anybody who knows New York in the 80's, and, in particular, the Port Authority terminal rest room...knows that that was an act of utterly idiotic naiveté. I mean, my first act in New York was about the stupidest, least recommended thing I could have done. I used the public john at the Port Authority wearing a back pack.

There seemed to be about fifteen guys in the restroom. All sorts of drugs, smoke, crack and and drink being used. I took my piss in an open stall and left. Like so many later moments, for better or worse, it just didn't phase me. "Sorry," I said to a guy who approached me, "I'm in a hurry."

I called my cousin Dan from the lobby. Dan is a nice guy. Maybe my Dad had called my Uncle to warn him that I'd be calling Dan at 7AM. When he answered, he seemed to know I'd be calling.

Dan was pleasant. (I have 28 first cousins, by the way...so, in the grand scheme of things while we are all pleasant to each other, it's not as if we have to move heaven and earth to help each other out. That's not expected, and couldn't be.) I asked Dan if there were some sights I could see while I had time to kill. He told me to buy a token for the subway and stroll up 8th Avenue or Broadway. Either way I'd hit the "1 line" to Columbia. I chose 8th Avenue.

I love New York. Even if that New York is gone. The porno parlours. The gay strip bars still open at 8AM. The omnipresent smell of urine and constant flow of early morning traffic. You see, that was what going to Columbia University meant to me. Taxi Driver. Herbert Huncke. Times Square. Jack Keruoac. One big disheveled mess of a city. It was a nice, bright, spring day. There was not a tree in sight.

I walked through Hell's Kitchen.

Guys with Hot Dog carts were wheeling them out for the day. (There was a famous "Hot Dog Cart repository" somewhere in a warehouse on that side of mid-town. Only later did I learn from a Romanian immigrant who'd worked there that most of the hot dogs left over from the day before were simply boiled again to clear off the slime of sitting overnight.) The New Yorker building loomed above the decrepitude. Wow.

I remember thinking. This is an otherwise very crappy stroll that I am finding quite pleasant.

I liked the feeling of walking on my own two legs up 8th Avenue. (Less than 9 months earlier I'd couldn't have done that with or without a cane. Too true.) I liked the vibe of the city. The black buildings. The gates and grates. The solidity of it. New York didn't give a fuck about me. I liked that.

I tried to enter the subway at 59th Street at Columbus Circle. I hit one of those full length "can't go through" turnstiles that must have, sometime in the past, have accepted tokens. I couldn't get through.

I walked back up to the street. Looked at the monumental sculptures and the "grand thoroughfare" of Columbus Circle. I liked New York. Some of these buildings, especially the view of Central Park South, looked really familiar. I felt like, while I hadn't ever lived there, that I'd spent some good part of my "mental life" in the city already. I walked back down Broadway. Figured out how to catch an uptown train at 48th Street. (Not obvious, either, at that time.) And made my way up to 116th and Broadway and my student visit.

That was my first couple hours in New York City. Everything I'd ever done up to that point in my life had been "prep" for that moment. It didn't phase me. I liked it.

Yeah, I did the requisite visiting student activities for the first part of my day. But, in truth, I didn't waste much time at the school before I took another subway token and headed straight back downtown.

New York was big. Bigger that that even. And I didn't have much time.


awol on Iraq

awol, sometime guest poster here, has an interesting piece up on Iraq.

Upon reading the piece it occured to me that we are very nearly arriving at a time when the "justifications" for invading and occupying Iraq...in advance of the invasion, on the fly over these last years and now, retroactively...are all coming together towards the narrative that was inevitable from the very begining.

Watch for the Bush Administration and "stay the course" advocates to start talking about the U.S. geostrategic need to occupy Iraq for its oil and the oil in the region. They won't do this explicitly, but we've already begun to hear it in the rhetoric, as an aside. There is talk about how our "allies" rely on the region's energy reserves. There are references to our "geostrategic" interest in Iraq.

Blood for oil.

It's the only card they have left.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Schubert Arpeggione Sonata

I walked into Amoeba Berkeley one rainy day and asked the guy in Classical if he could recommend some chamber music that would match my rainy mood.

He walked straight to the used section and pulled out this CD: Decca Legends, Rostropovich/Britten, Schubert Arpeggione Sonata.

I like chamber music. I'm not an afficionado. I just like it. It sounds better on speakers at home. It's rich and warm. It's moody. It's rewarding.

The thing I like about this recording is that it's very simple and direct. It's romantic, yes. Schubert is. But both performers...Rostropovich and Britten...fully believe that even the simplest phrase is worth playing well and to its fullest. And, well, the Arpeggione Sonata is full of simple, direct and beautiful phrases.

I know I'll sound a fool for saying so...but a bit of cello is almost always the salve for my cosmic wounds. It's just such a wise instrument. At it's highest range, it's still in a register that is far from shrill. At its running gear, it sings with a kind of knowing sadness. And, in the hands of Rostropovich, well...it's a thing of beauty. His sound is just so full...and, yet, never too much.

That is actually the most powerful thing about this recording: its restraint. It is one long ode to control and precision....le mot juste spoken over and over again. It's like someone recalling a love affair from a later point of balance...but not so far removed so that the passion has been drained. Its vantage point is one in which the many days of the engagement...days that later bleed into fewer and fewer recollected moments as time wears on...are all there to be savored with a proportion and a freshness that barely covers just healed wounds.

And in the midst of it all is Benjamin Britten's collaborative piano. My favorite moments of the piece are those in which the piano, which in this arrangement is never given the starring role, has some bit of connective melodic work to do. At these points Rostropovich plucks away in diligent support, and Britten's piano sings and surges forward. Humble. Restrained. Fully playing the accompanying role. Britten's small additions carry more than their share of the weight.

It's a nice disc. It "gets" Schubert. It's not my favorite piece of chamber music. It's not sublime. But it is something different than that. It's self contained. And well worth revisiting from time to time. It's a friend. It doesn't try to be anything it is not. It just is. Workmanlike. Elegant. Without too much affectation.

In this world such friends are well worth making.


France could have won

I haven't read this point anywhere. So, I'll make it.

France could have won. Soccer is played with 11 players, but many a team has made do with less...and won. France had chances to score the length and breadth of the 2nd half and the overtimes. France, with 10 men, after Zidane was sent off, still pushed for a goal. Buffon stopped the Zidane header with aplomb...and, friends, Buffon will rank very high on the list of all-time keepers. That moment was a legend denying a legend...Dr. J blocking a shot by Magic Johnson. It could have gone another way...it didn't.

Barthez had always been a potetential weak point. But when it came to PKs...the French side made theirs except for one. That's it. That was the difference. Buffon stopped nothing. Trezeguet hit the cross bar and it failed to spin in. That was it. That determined the outcome of the match.

Italy played well enough for it to go to penalties...and the French failed in the box when they had glorious chances. Ribery, Henry and Zidane all could have taken Buffon to the far left of the net. All of them had that shot in view. None of them made it happen.

Italy made their penalties. That speaks to their side, their training and their team spirit.

I, for one, will always think less of a team that could indulge the "goading" of a Materazzi. Sorry. But I'll also think less of Zidane and expect him to account and atone for his action. Regardless, I know this: he might well of stayed on only to see the French lose. He was tired as hell.

You see, my point is that the opposite result could have happened despite Zidane being sent off. France didn't just "give up." France very easily could have won on PKs. The other ten men played exceptionally well. I can't tell you how many times I commented on the pluck and determination of the French squad. The same could be said for most of the Italian team as well. That being said, the World Cup final as a whole experience came down to something weird and messed up and odd. But the outcome of the match in regulation time was not determined by any one thing, and anyone who says so is pretending to know more than anyone can know.

It came down, in the end, to PKs. Italy won the shoot out. They won the World Cup. It's only a game. And the outcome can't erase the good and bad, the mundane and the sublime...that all of us saw with our own two eyes. Bring down the curtain on the World Cup. Win or lose, every player on that pitch was part of history.

And,at the very least, it wasn't boring.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Zidane again

Someone asked me how I can speak for this post...after the final.

Here's what I had to say:

At this point, reading that post...it's hilarious and clear how I didn't take account of the full reality. Yes, Zidane is both "focused and composed"...but he is also capable of the violence we saw on Sunday. Hell, even his headbutt was focused and composed...which is part of what made it so shocking.

I don't think that Zidane's bad behaviour can be written off or written out of the story...it's part of him and part of the history of this World Cup.

So, I have two thoughts.

First, I think Zidane's performance has always been about controlling that rage and focusing it...in one way or another. It was, most of the time, a beautiful thing to behold. On Sunday, at the end, he failed. The British like to say of football players..."In the end, he got the job done." That was not Zidane in the Final. The same motor that propelled him proved to be his undoing.

Second, I think the "zone" out of which Zidane's football brilliance came was likely some kind of deeply personal "state" that he indulged and called upon. Zidane believed that he could do impossible things...or that impossible things could flow out of him if he gave himself over to this state...and, in fact, he was gifted enough to actually do them. Zidane's play was perhaps based on a kind of "belief state" that gave him enormous confidence.

In some ways, this meant that Zidane believed in his own myth, he had to.

That zone state led to that fantastic header on goal out of nowhere in the first overtime period...and perhaps to Zidane's personal shock when it did not go in. That state also had perils. To be in his last match, the last minutes of his career, and to have some a "muscle" player deride him...well, it set him off.

Zidane, believing his own myth, thought he could get away with a head butt in revenge...like Figo did. Or it is possible that Zidane, on some level, did truly come unhinged, and it was not simply that he gave no thought to consequence...but that he believed, deep in his own mythos, that he operated without consequence. I don't know.

His action, as Roger Cohen notes, ruined a great narrative. But that narrative was simplistic. "Zidane, the good man whose career took a fairytale arc." I feel that if my earlier post had been written with an understanding of Zidane's inner complexities, if it had been written with a notion of Zidane's struggle with his own daemons...then maybe I would have avoided beatfication and still pointed in the right direction.

Gesture, for good or ill, is still a powerful tool for understanding...and Zidane was worth watching on Sunday. He was unforgettable.

Watching him walk off the field past the Cup Trophy was something out of myth.

You see, Zidane failed as a man, as a teammate, and as an example on Sunday. However, ever the master of the intensity of gesture...Zidane in that moment sealed a narrative that is complex and disturbing...and, at the end of the day, frail.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Zidane, Zidane, Zidane...ugh...

I thought France played the game they had to play to beat Italy. I was never very optimistic that they would win...but I was thrilled to see how much skill and pluck the French team showed the whole way through...in the second half and into the overtimes, they played like a team that deserved to win...missing only the finish that would bring victory...

However, we can't not talk about it...after scoring another great penalty and burning the image, the world over, of an old man young enough to scorch a header on goal...Zinedine Zidane snapped.

That head butt was shameful. It was "thought out." It was onscreen when hundreds of millions of kids could watch it.

No matter what the Italian said or did, that kind of premeditated foul is...foul. Hell, even, let's say that Materazzi used some truly wicked insult...using violence to respond to that insult only gives power to the insulter, power to the abuser.

Clear red card. Moment of extreme drama. For us fans of Zidane, a moment of truth.

Soccer, at once a sport with real problems in the "outcome" department...once again proves that it can't be beat in the spectacle department.

Zidane le fou. A new french myth born and reforged before a billion eyes.

My thoughts are for his teammates. They did all they could to deliver the win.

Had they won, nothing they would have done could have redeemed the disgrace.

Only Zidane can do that.

It will be his choice. Perhaps the shy man will overcome one last challenge, and apologize.


Friday, July 07, 2006

one night in high school

I finagled my way to accompany my girlfriend, her mom and her brother to walk around a Lake late one night in Minneapolis. I was 16. I'm sure there was some "teenage tricky business" that I used on my parents to weasel permission for this adventure. I just don't remember what.

At any rate. I remember driving down Lake Street holding hands in the backseat while Connie's mom drove us into Minneapolis. What joy. Holding hands. Surreptitiously. How scandalous and sweaty.

I was wearing this green Ford Trucker hat that I'd bought when on vacation with my dad in South Dakota when I was eleven. (The troll who used to lambaste me as a 'trucker hat wearing liberal'...was two decades too late, I guess.) At any rate...we went for a walk around one of the Minneapolis Lakes one summer night. Connie, her mom, her brother Jack, and me.

It was a warm night. There were other folks strolling around the Lake. And, for some stupid reason...love, I guess...I did a cartwheel. And another one. Cartwheels on the grass. At night. Sixteen years old. How stupid and beautiful.

Somewhere in there, the pocket knife my dad had given me on my ninth birthday fell out of my pocket. I had no idea. It was just gone. Lost in the grass, at night, walking around a Lake that I'd finagled my way into circumnavigating when I was supposed to be doing something else. I didn't notice till later.

On the way home, however, I threw the hat out the window of the car. It had grown old and sweaty. No one cared. I figured. Let it get crushed by a bus on Lake Street. I was happy.

Only later did I realize that I'd lost the knife as well. Knives, hats, things. Now I realize....they're easy to replace. Find a new one. It won't be the same, but, it'll come close.

What life has taught me, however, is that one thing I'll never replace is that cartwheel, and what it felt like to hold that girl's hand in the backseat of a car driving down Lake Street.

Paradoxically, I also know now that equally irreplaceable and precious to me is the man I finagled to get there...the one who bestowed the pocket knife upon me when I was nine years old and full of a different kind of wonder.

Life is never what it seems.

Tell that to the Lake. It knows more than it lets on.

Chapati Kid

Chapati Kid is a blogger in Toronto....I came across this piece on Zidane and then read on in appreciation of his memories of a house in India.

Good stuff...Chapati Kid. And if you like Chapati Kid, don't forget to visit Revolution Island.

Okay, if sports isn't your ticket, try this one...arts/neighborhood/Brooklyn =...the Williamsburg Nerd. This piece is pretty interesting for what it says about Brooklyn...and where the kids are moving to.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Okay, more Zidane

Zidane is a man of gestures...in fact, he is a master of them...and it is well worth paying attention to the fine points of his conduct. Especially since we've got just one more match to savor his presence.

Yes, Zidane was mortal for the match with Portugal. (Of course, most of us would love being called "mortal" after scoring the winning goal in the semis of the World Cup.) I was left with these impressions after the match.

First, Zidane's grimacing smile in the Tunnel before the match. Is there anyone who can match this man for focus and composure?

Second, his little-remarked-upon open-armed...perhaps religious...gesture to the heavens after his successful Penalty Kick. It was a gesture that was gentle, ancient, quiet. It had an abscence of macho. (Click here and go to image #9...you'll see.)

Third, after the match Zidane did not simply trade jerseys with Figo, he donned Figo's sweat soaked jersey. In effect, this gesture said to the world "In the scale of human values, friendship has a higher rank than victory." What a profound statement.

Fourth, the way Zidane leaves the pitch. He is quiet, relieved, casual. He's a "family man" who's put in a days work and is focused on going home. That says something.

I would also say one thing that goes little noticed is the respect with which Zidane listens to and supports his teammates, in particular the back-line veterans Makelele and Thuram. If one pays attention, it's clear that Zidane listens to them and works with them as equals. Thuram, in my opinion, has played better than Cannavaro the last three matches and it will be fascinating to watch the battle of these two men on Sunday.

Finally, as for the PK itself.

Give Portuguese goal keeper Ricardo Pereira credit for guessing right and being the only goal keeper in World Cup history to stop three shots in a shoot out (against England.) But that being said, give Zidane credit for making an abbreviated approach and, despite that, curling an impossible-to-stop shot into the left inside of the net. Had Zidane taken a run like others, or curved his shot more conservatively...the story might easily have been different. Ricardo was almost up to the task. His hand just barely missed deflecting the ball.

The genius of a genius is that they make it look easy. The point is not that the Zidane is super human. It's the opposite. It what he does with his limitations that is astounding. On top of that, there is a deeper meaning to Zidane's game. I am convinced that Zidane's has his own quiet message about teamwork, friendship, and, even, diversity, multi-culturaism and race, that are there for those who choose to look.

In my lowly view, in addition to watching two great teams play in the final, we will all have the honor of watching Zinedine Zidane take the field one last time. Paying attention both to what he does and how he does it...has so far proven well worth the effort.

I have no doubt, regardless of the outcome of the match, that it will be the same on Sunday. Zidane is more than a footballer. He is a man worth watching.

In doubt of the above? Read this. And then read this.


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bedlam for Soccer Fans: Grosso, Pirlo & Co. go through

Okay. I've mentioned that I've been watching the World Cup matches with friends at the Red Sea cafe in North Oakland. Well, about sixty of us soccer fans got treated to "one of those matches" again today.

It wasn't so much that it was a "great match" in the first 90 minutes. It was fantastic soccer, but not great. It wasn't so much, either, that the teams did not engage in bits of strategery and over-dramatic stuff. They did. Hell, when the Italian midfielder Gattusso pretended to "pal" around with his German counterpart Michael Ballack after a collision and then, I'm guessing here, pinch him with his hidden hand...the crowd at the Red Sea murmured with a somewhat disgusted admiration at the ballsiness of the gesture.

Here's the thing.

World Cup soccer should not be about penalty kicks. The team that wins should be the team that decisively did what was needed to win. Italy in those two overtime periods was that team. (To be frank, Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and lead defender Fabio Cannavaro have epitomized that mindset the entire tournament.) In effect, with fans the world over praying for a decisive outcome and jadedly estimating that the Germans knew they would go through on penalites...something happened to change that outcome in Dortmund.

The Italians, who haven't been known for playing attacking soccer these last decades...ran for their goddamned lives. They played smart, they changed pace, they constantly sought the "clever trick" that would see them through. Their subs...Gilardino, Iaquinta, Del Piero...interlocked with the rest of the team on the hunt for the key to end the match.

And they found that key when Alessandro Pirlo...denied by Jens Lehmann minutes earlier...savvily looked like he was about to shoot once again and instead dumped it off to a defensive player....Fabio Grosso. Now, Grosso's shot...a left-footed first strike which curled around Lehmann and will live in the dreams of about 379 million soccer-playing kids around the globe...had all the force of immortaility the second if left his foot. And it was just that, immortal. It will live forever.

At the Red Sea in Oakland, it was as if the gods had parted the waters.

No penalties...no "false outcome"...no cynicism...just the beautiful game in all its beauty. A goal to end the match with justice. What a gift to soccer fans the world over!

Of course, Pirlo's move...passing to a defender...would have been harshly judged in retrospect had the outcome been different. (Just as the match would have changed permanently had not Buffon lifted his fist at...just...the...right...moment...to block a scorcher from German striker Lukas Podolski.) That is something to keep in mind whenever someone is lamenting a sporting outcome. This isn't rocket science...or perhaps, given the state of rocket science, it is...regardless, sports is a decidedly human endeavour and we judge players later on decisions made in the heat of the moment, when everything is still up in the air.

In the end, of course, this was one for the fans. This was one for those tired and jaded of boring outcomes and cynical play. The beauty of the Italian strikes...Del Piero's last-second goal being no less gorgeous...was commensurate with the intensity and decisiveness with which the Italians gave themselves to the play in those last 30 minutes.

Ah, proportion and justice! The Germans played well, but not well enough. They were too young and their goal-keeper's magnificient efforts could not save them.

This game was won on a decisive and impossible-to-stop shot. It could have been very different, but it wasn't.

Italy 2 - Germany 0. Soccer fans are smiling the world over.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Hidden Connection

guest post by awol

"Invading Iraq after September 11th, is like invading Mexico after
Pearl Harbor." --Richard Clarke, Meet the Press, Sunday, March 28th, 2004

Let's see.

The 9/11 attacks were carried out by Al Qaeda. Saddam Hussein had a primarily hostile relationship to Al Qaeda.

The 9/11 attacks were carried out by Shiite fundamentalists. The Sunni Ba'ath party discriminated against Shiites.

The 9/11 attacks were co-ordinated by Osama Bin Laden. Hussein and Bin Laden were political rivals.

The 9/11 attacks were conducted by ethnically Arabic people. Iraq, save its 20% Kurdish population, is also an ethnically Arabic country.

It's amazing how little our political culture -- even the culture of opposition -- really acknowledges this simple, damning truth.

At the core of the Iraq war, and the 38,000+ killed in Iraq, is an equation that flows necessarily and bluntly through an inescapably racist logic. (A racist and thus hideously malformed logic). But our country has been so cowed by the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent actions of our government that this point has been essentially banned from all but the most marginalized, extreme forms of political or cultural opposition.

It's a pretty terrible thing, really.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Why Gore Should Run?

guest post by awol

Reading the Sunday paper today I suddenly had a thought about Al Gore and what is at stake in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. What's arguably the single most important issue in the presidential election is before us this week but, for various reasons, it is not something emphasized in our political culture. I'm not thinking here of the Iraq war, taxes and the economy, energy policy or the environment but rather the (continued) changing composition of the Supreme Court.

The ruling of the SCOTUS in Hamdi v. Rumsfield on the last day of the term's session should not provide any comfort about the long-term direction of the Supreme Court and the still potential implications of this direction. On the contrary. What the Roberts and Alito appointments seem to have done is to have starkly increased the polarization of the court. The essential spectrum on the court now is legible in three different perspectives: four liberal/left members, four conservatives/right-wing members, one right-centrist swing vote.

This "balance" means one thing if we understand it on its own terms and quite another if we see it as a snapshot within a necessarily dynamic movement that takes place over time. It's quite possible that neither Stevens, Ginsburg, Souter, Kennedy or Bryer will leave the court before the end of 2012. Or the end of 2016. But at some point in the next election cycles the court will continue to move, and, simply put, if the Republicans continue to win the presidency, the court will dramatically change. Here are the ages of these five justices as each of these presidential cycles nears its third year:

December 2011: Stevens (91), Kennedy (75), Souter (72), Ginsberg (78), Breyer (74)

December 2015: Stevens (95), Kennedy (79), Souter (76), Ginsberg (82), Breyer (78)

December 2019: Stevens (99), Kennedy (83), Souter (80), Ginsberg (86), Breyer (82)

(By contrast, Clarence Thomas will be 67 in 2015, Roberts will be 60, Alito will be 65.)

It seems fairly clear that there is a huge, not a negligible difference between a 4-1-4 court and the 5-4 (or 6-3, or 7-2) court that we could - and, in fact, most likely will -- face if Democrats don't win a presidential cycle fairly soon. Many of Bush's policies have been, from early on, designed to make it easier for the Republicans to continue holding on to power in the future. This is the central logic of Rove's political strategy: exercise political power in order to make holding, and gaining, further political power easier and easier. Among the major actions that the Republicans have taken in this regard we could put:

1.    Redistricting Texas to create more House Republicans

2.    Manipulation of voting and voters by Republican governors and secretaries of state.

3.    Pay-to-Play schemes from K Street Project to the Bush energy policy that have given Republicans huge advantages in electoral dollars for each of the last election cycles. (We need only think of Busby's campaign last month, obviously effected by this kind of imbalance - even as the race, spurred by Duke Cunningham's arrest, was a referendum on such Republican financial malfeasance).

4.    Massive changes in the separation of powers - including, of course, Bush's policy about signing statements - that work to take power away from any Democrats that do manage to get elected to Congress.

5.    Threatening the "nuclear option" in order to eliminate the legislative tools available to the Democrats that are in the Senate.

6.    Selective discrimination against blue States or areas in favor of Red, from the disproportionate largesse that has flowed to Jeb Bush's Florida to the mistreatment of New Orleans (the bluest part of Louisiana) to the notorious shifting of homeland security funds away from New York City.

7.    Promoting state legislation deliberately designed to boost conservative turnout or tamp down democratic turnout in nationally significant races (most successfully, the anti-gay marriage referendums in 2004).

Most important of all, though, in this regard, is the reshaping of the Supreme Court. No other political project of the Republicans will have nearly such a consequence for the potential growth of Republican power. Of course, this vicious cycle was most powerfully demonstrated at the very start of the Bush Administration, in the 5-4 Bush v Gore ruling. But on a host of other issues, the judiciary system has and could continue to play an extremely significant role. Just in this SCOTUS session itself, we have seen important rulings about redistricting, campaign finance and the separation of powers. On all of these issues, the court has already moved to the right since O'Connor's retirement, and in each of these cases, either Kennedy or Bryer - together with the reliable votes of Souter, Ginsburg, and Stevens - exercised a moderating influence.

It seems fairly clear that if the Republicans get one more of these votes, the rules of politics in this country might be dramatically changed. From abortion, to worker's rights, to environmental legislation, such a SCOTUS would dramatically alter what the Democratic party could fight for, how we could fight for it and what kinds of rights were available through the constitution. Beyond radically altering the policy landscape, such a court would also make it easier -- and potentially much easier -- for Republicans to continue gaming the system, redistricting, gerrymandering, flooding corporate money into campaigns at all levels, destroying labor unions, allowing the centralization of the media, etc., etc.

This gaming of the system, however, has already extended to the very struggle over the Supreme Court itself. In their victories on Roberts and Alito, Republicans were successful at dividing the Democrats and winning the war of public opinion. Crucially, Bush's SCOTUS appointments were the only major policy of his second term which polled well. The "nuclear option" and "gang of 14" also seems to have worked to the advantage of the Republicans, shifting what we understand as the center of debate and putting the democrats in a remarkably defensive position. Compared to other recent political moments, it is not clear what would even constitute a powerful political strategy, by the Democrats, on court appointments. While Senate challengers across the country are running on the Iraq war, fiscal responsibility, New Orleans and energy policy, the SCOTUS has not emerged as an important part of the Democratic platform.

If I were Al Gore, the future of the Supreme Court would weigh very heavily indeed. Next year's docket, indeed, includes a major case on global warming. This same court, even before O'Connor's retirement, offered him a bruising defeat in the 2000 election controversy. We cannot assume that our odds are all that good in the 2008 presidential election. Another close election, or the potential realignments that we can conjure up through various permutations of Al Qaeda, Iraq, fear mongering and war hysteria, Republican mischief, campaign spending, voter manipulation, voting manipulation, John McCain, Hilary Clinton, our other Democratic contenders and the continued, alarming exercise of power by Bush, Rove and Cheney, should not leave anyone sanguine. Many issues that are entirely external to the Supreme Court (from Bill's relationship to Hilary to another attack in the U.S. by Al Qaeda) could end up being of crucial import to the history of the court - and through that, the history of this country. If Gore really does have the best chance of retaking the White House in 2008, it might be simply incumbent on him to throw his hat back in the ring.

cross posted at daily kos

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Zidane, Zidane, Zidane

Brazil is out. And Zidane once again has proved he is the giant of the current game.

Spinning, cajoling, directing, weaving, observing, striking...Zidane's performance was effortless today. That was one to write up in the history books. Zidane, captain of the French midfield was not simply the best player on the pitch, he proved himself once again to be the player with the deepest understanding of the game. What he lacked in speed and agility...and that's surprisingly little for a 34 year old...he made up for in savvy and wisdom.

Zidane knew what it would take, did it, and made it look so simple that one asked oneself...did I just see that? A break around Cafu, a flip over the head of Roberto Carlos, a spin upfield that zig-zagged between two Brazilian defenders who were supposed to be doing that very thing to the old man. Zidane untied the knot of the Brazilian defense with a few quick strokes.

When Zidane sent that ball arcing over the Brazilian back line in a huge rainbow of a free kick...there was not a single person watching surprised when Thierry Henry flicked it definitively into the top of the Brazilian net: it seemed pre-ordained and logical.

Zinedine Zidane is the Pascal of football. His Pensées are deft movements and perfectly executed plays. They are simple. Short. Graceful. They are surprisingly explosive and self-assured.

What we saw in his face today...half-grimace, half-grin....we've seen in the visage of a very few in the annals of sport. A man completely at ease with the test he had left himself. A self-sufficient master at peace with success or failure and focused on the task at hand.

Here was a man who found the measure of his team and his moment by resolutely expressing what was most pure, what was most essential in his own game. And Zidane brought forth the best from his team like a director...in French they say a metteur-en-scene...a "constructor of scenes". A win meant Zidane would play again, a loss meant his final game and France's exit from the tournament.

And while the edifice of France's victory today was a thrilling group effort...the essence of its architecture rested in the mind and will of one man. Zidane imposed himself not simply on one game but on this entire World Cup. He has given us fans something we will always remember:

The visage, the eyes, the darting passes of a master defiantly spinning out one last brilliant moment before taking his bow and disappearing.