Monday, February 27, 2012

When You've Come to the Abyss

When Kobe Bryant moved ahead of Shaquille O'Neal into fifth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list, an interesting conversation began. Three sportswriters on ESPN sat and wondered, "Where will Kobe stand among the greats of all time?"

Kobe, a 6'7" shooting guard, has amassed points, assists, rebounds - five NBA Championships - and is consistently voted to the NBA's all-defensive first team. Yet, one writer remarked: "I have trouble putting him up there with the best of all time when he has only one MVP," (the honor bestowed annually upon the league's best player). The writer added: "In fact, Steve Nash (who has won two MVP awards) has as many as Kobe and Shaq combined."

Suddenly, things got quiet - the sportswriters had gotten a glimpse into the abyss. None of them liked what they saw, and they turned away.

What the writers saw was a glimpse of themselves and their own petty ways of determining who is worthy of their favor. These sportswriters who vote for MVPs and Hall of Fame honorees have long ago forgotten themselves. They see athletes and imagine themselves their equals; they are emboldened by the privilege they enjoy sitting in judgment at critical moments in these athletes lives. They borrow on their positions as arbiters - expect to be courted, and liked. They are ruled by slights, and what they fancy to be personality clashes with athletes who reject them. They strive to even the score with their pens.

Steve Nash, a 6'1" point guard is a fine player. He is well-liked and a skilled passer and shooter. He has never been - and will never be - considered among the league's greats. Yet, this player - who won no titles, and was a poor defender - received the coveted MVP award twice during the same years when Kobe, a true all-time great, only received it once. One year, Kobe scored 80 points in one game! - on his way to winning the league's scoring title. That same year, he was named to the NBA's all-defensive team. Still, they awarded Nash the MVP.

In the sports world, MVP awards matter; their value grow with the aging of the athlete. When the ball stops bouncing, these awards become the pole upon which the athlete unfurls his legacy.

Kobe is known worldwide as a player who leaves it all on the floor…year after year after year. And you only once call "The Kobe" the league's most valuable player?

Today, these sportswriters stare into the proverbial abyss. Unfortunately, when you've gone so far that you can see into the abyss, it is already too late to do anything about it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Bon Chat, Bon Rat (To a good cat, a good rat)

It's getting serious folks, and weird. Defense secretary, Leon Panetta, disclosed that Israel is likely to attack Iran's nuclear facilities as early as April. (Isn't any such strike supposed to be a surprise?) For the U.S. to tell its enemy (Iran) that our friend (Israel) is about to cold-cop them strains the concept of friendship, (and enemy-hood). So, what just happened here?

We know the U.S. does not want Israel to stage a unilateral attack against Iran. Bad things could happen, including: 1. it could touch off a regional conflagration; 2. oil prices could spike to over $200 a barrel; 3. the tepid economic recovery the U.S. is experiencing would nosedive; 4. no one can know the full extent of Iran's retaliatory response.

Besides, for Iran's sheer size - it is larger than Iraq and Afghanistan, combined - and the way its nuclear facilities are dispersed from one end of the country to the other, there is serious doubt that an Israeli strike would be successful. More than likely, all we would get is a truckload of problems, and no solutions.

This is geopolitical bullying at its worst: Israel is 1/100th the size of Iran with 1/10th the population. Yet, it seeks to impose its will on the Iranian people. Iran is not compelled by any logic nor law or nature to take this.

When Israel took out Saddam's Osiri nuclear plant in Iraq, Saddam did nothing. Israel followed with an attack on Syria's nuclear; its President Assad made the same mistake. Both leaders refused to respond to Israel's naked aggression, presumably because they feared a fight they might lose. Saddam lost his nation, anyway. Likewise, Assad is on the ropes in Syria.

The French have a saying: "a bon chat (shah), bon rat (rah)" - to a good cat, a good rat. Or, as Sonny Corleone would say, "They hit us, so we hit 'em back." Israel and Iran should both take heed.

So, why is America telling on Israel, anyway? Some say it is part of a good-cop/bad-cop routine. Perhaps. Others suggest that by exposing Israel's intention, Israel might be less likely to take this risk.

The bottom line: America believes an Israeli strike will not only fracture the fragile sanctions regime President Obama seeks to fashion against Iran, but it will drag the U.S. into another disastrous war.

And what of the Israeli people? Do they want their leaders bombing Iran - a strike that could unleash the wrath of Iran's sophisticated missile system? Make no mistake: Iran is not a backward Muslim nation. Just last week, they launched a satellite into orbit around the Earth. That said, Israelis in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem must wonder that a strike on Iran might bring the skies down on their heads. A bon chat, bon rat.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Gas Can" Newt

In the wake of Gingrich's smashing primary victory in South Carolina, people have asked, "Why has Newt done so well?" It is South Carolina, folks - the birthplace of the Confederacy. They are still confederates.

Remember the last debate there, when Texas governor, Rick Perry, declared: "South Carolina is at war with the federal government!" The way the crowd cheered, you would have thought he fired on Fort Sumter.

So, when Newt went in spouting race-tinged buzz words like "food stamp president" and "Blacks want welfare checks, no paychecks," he was whistling "Dixie." Add this: For many South Carolinians, the news media is no better than "yankee carpetbaggers," anyway. Ever astute Newt just plugged in. He had already been going after the media - blasting Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, and CNBC's Maria Bartoromo. Then, in South Carolina, he went especially hard with the near emasculation of Juan Williams and CNN's John King. And, again, the confederates screamed with delight.

Newt is the Republican field's Howard Stern. He is playing with house money and having a ball saying the most outrageous things. Want to go to the moon? Elect Newt; he's planning a colony there.

As we vote this primary season, we must wonder what America would be in for with the mercurial Newt at the helm: "Lost in Space," and Silvio Berlusconi Goes to Washington."

Monday, February 6, 2012

America's Great Cage and the Cause of Freedom

There is a dichotomy in America that pits our much-ballyhooed "love of freedom" against our hatred of it. In the past, it was people of color - African-American slaves, Native Americans forced onto reservations, this split personality. Today, it is the families of America's prisoners.

For 250 years, this American nation imprisoned an entire race of people - called them "slaves", and determined that they had no rights. They proceeded to build a southern economy - the plantation system - upon the backs of these hapless men, women, and children. These southerners spoke of "God" and "honor" while they inflicted endless abuses upon their captives. They fortified this system of slavery with laws and institutions so that it would last.

When President Lincoln said that he would emancipate the slaves, his pronouncement had a visceral effect on the South. One southerner called Lincoln's plan "despicable." It would take the deaths of 600,000 men to convince the South to let its captives go.

Today, Americans talk of being a "forgiving people"; a people who believes in "second chances." These Americans are no more sincere than the men of the antebellum South who spoke of "honor" even as they castrated black men, raped black women, and sold black children.

Slavery was one big prison cell that stretched from Maryland to Texas. After it was dismantled, America revisited its zeal for imprisoning people with the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Entire families and communities had their lives ripped away for no other reason than America had the power to do so. There was no guilt among the imprisoned Japanese-Americans. They were loyal, honorable American citizens. The guilt was founded in the DNA of people who felt empowered when they imprison.

One hundred and fifty years after slavery, America still boasts the most elaborate system of prisons on Earth. And for many Americans - even today - to speak of freeing someone from America's Great Cage is hateful.

Witness Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour, now under fire for pardoning prisoners his last day in office. Incredulous Americans ask, "Why did he do it? What's wrong with him?" We should be incredulous at America's incredulity - this people who so claim to believe in forgiveness and second chances.

Proponents of victims' rights were the first to speak out against Barbour. (Their thirst for vengeance is legend.) When they want to accent their fear of released prisoners, they speak of a "chilling effect" - a scare tactic, similar to how slaveholders would stoke a nation's fears by offering up images of freed black men roaming the countryside.

These Americans think nothing of a prisoner spending another year, another five years, another ten years in prison. If you were to ask: "What of the child who longs to be taken fishing by her imprisoned granddad?" Victims' rights is likely to respond, "What about me?" They know nothing of prison, nor of the families of prisoners.

Be assured: Prison is a kicking. Prisoners are kicked, and kicked, and kicked. It is a figurative kicking, unlike slavery, which was a literal kicking. But it is a kicking all the same.

These parallels between prison and slavery are just. Slavery was about denying a people their freedom. Prison is about denying family theirs. Of course punishment is necessary when crimes are committed. But when that punishment drags on, and on, and on…

The institution of slavery in America was as sick as any human endeavor. There the slave master despised his slave so that he heaped endless indignities upon him. Yet, he seemed to love his slave so that he was ready to see the entire house burn down rather than let his slave go.

Prison is not slavery. But as long as indignities are heaped upon prisoners as though they are hated, yet they are kept endlessly as though they are loved, we must begin to wonder if the State knows the difference.