Saturday, June 26, 2010

the world cup: wait 'til 2014

Well both of my teams (Italy and USA) are now out, which means it's a bit less exciting for me, but probably more enjoyable. For one thing, since other teams are less in the habit of giving up goals in (say) the first 90 seconds, I can worry a little bit less about showing up on time. And, perhaps, take bathroom breaks without fear of a disaster.

The two teams' fates, while different, had some themes in common. Italy, of course, won the World Cup in 2006, which makes their first-round elimination a bit harder to take. It is less commonly remembered that they suffered early-round debacles in various other tournaments (2002 World Cup, 2004 and 2008 European championships) and were widely considered in decline before the 06 team--on the strength of superhuman goaltending by Gigi Buffon and one well-timed insult to Zinadine Zidane--managed to pull it off. This year's collapse appears to have resulted in equal parts from an aging squad, ill-timed injuries (including one to Buffon), and a general lack of impegno (urgency) on the part of the team and its players. At least Italy avoided the nasty intramural squabbling, not to say racism, which shook the French squad (also first-round losers): ironic in my view, since the immigrants always seemed more French to me than the nominal French people, or were at least the only ones who didn't talk to me in English.

The U.S. is a more complex problem. They played well but seemed constantly to be behind and, perhaps, to be just a bit too earnest, as if they appreciated the words of soccer but perhaps not all of its music. For example, the Americans almost never feigned nonexistent injuries, which are in theory despicable but in practice a rather distinguished art form. (Italy beat Australia in 2006 on the strength of a penalty call that was, well, embellished by the Italian player.) On the other hand, they never gave up on themselves and left with their heads held rather higher than many of their European counterparts: a sort of microcosm of what the world likes and dislikes about Americans, and will probably continue to do so.

Every World Cup brings the question of whether soccer will now break into the top tier of American sports (the Winter Olympics bring the same question for hockey, which is in theory near the top but never quite sure of its status). As much as I love soccer, I remain skeptical. Popular tastes are, as economics say, sticky: Coke and Pepsi have sold roughly the same percentages for fifty years, and the top sports are more or less what they were a generation ago. My instinct is that soccer--like hockey--would be better off expanding incrementally in its natural markets (the northeast, the west coast, all places with lots of yuppies and large immigrant populations) than trying to displace football in the world of Friday Night Lights. Better a small stadium filled with enthusiasts than a large one filled with corporate boxes: even if Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger are in them.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

what israel can do now

The Mavi Marmara affair has, as someone put it, been a sort of Rorshach test for outside observers everyone sees what they want to see. For people who don't like Israel, it seems to confirm their worst fears of an insecure, militarist state. For Israel's defenders, it is another sign that everyone is against us, and unfairly so at that. What can people who care about Israel, but don't necessarily agree with its policies, learn?

One problem here is that many possible suggestions are either too early or too late. For example, Israel has already tried making territorial and other concessions to the Palestinians, only to find that these have whetted the appetite for further concessions. Additional compromises, involving (say) Jerusalem or other issues, seem premature without a real negotiating structure.

Still, there are a number of things Israel could do now to improve its international standing without seriously endangering its security:

1. The Israeli Arabs.--It is often forgotten that, within pre-1967 Israel, about 15-20 percent of the population (over 1 million people) are Palestinian Arabs. Yet the country remains largely segregated and there is virtually no Arab representation in decision-making structures. Would it really be so hard to change this, and wouldn't it have a huge effect on the country's international image if it did change? What about symbolic measures: would allowing an alternate national anthem or an alternate/additional flag, as in Quebec, really cause irreparable damage to the country's status as a "Jewish" state, and might it not make it more stable in the long run?

2. The Role of the Military.--In the early years of the country key political leaders (Ben Gurion, Meir, Begin) rarely had military backgrounds. Now it seems every second political figure is a former general. The phenomenon is a public relations disaster and has serious impact on substantive decisions: everything from the Mavi Marmara to the Oslo Peace Process seems to be decided in secret and involve an inordinate ratio of daring to reasoned consensus. How about a rule that bars active soldiers over the rank of colonel from elected office for a 10-year period, and from the office of Defense Minister on a permanent basis?

3. The "right of return".--No Israeli Government is going to agree to unlimited return of Palestinian refugees which would be pretty much the end of the country. But does this mean that no return whatsoever is possible? What about a "tradeoff" of (say) 100,000 returnees for an equal number of Israelis and whatever remains as Arab territory after a peace agreement? Or the payment of monetary reparations, which would at least acknowledge the existence of the problem and provide a start for resettlement?

One additional note: if Israel is going to make peace with the Arabs, it is going to have first to make peace with itself. The past week saw large and sometimes violent demonstrations by haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews against an effort to integrate religious schools in a West Bank town. Sure, the haredim were wrong on the merits, and the rule of law has to be maintained. But the things that were said by many secular Israelis--that the haredim are lazy, that they are violent, that they are outside the normative Israeli community--sound an awful lot like things that were said about Jews, all Jews, in prewar Europe. How can one expect the Palestinians to make meaningful concessions, when Israelis themselves can't treat each other with respect?

Friday, June 11, 2010

same place, same time, different worlds

It's rare that one spends two consecutive evenings riveted to the same sports arena, especially when the first night features forty twenty-something athletes and the second two sixty-something pop singers. By sheer coincidence, I had precisely that experience this week, and it says a lot about my own life and the generation I am a part of.

On Wednesday night, as many readers will know, the Philadelphia Flyers were eliminated from the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs in a 4-3 overtime loss at the Wachovia Center in South Philly. (I didn't attend, although I attended two previous playoff games, at my kids' behest and my own expense, and followed this one closely on TV.) The loss was anticlimactic as well as disappointing: Chicago's winning goal slipped almost unnoticed through the goalkeeper's pads, and most in the stadium did not appear to realize at first that it was scored. Still, when they did find out, most of the fans responded in chivalrous fashion, politely applauding the victors as the Cup was presented and thinking ahead to next year. The overall feeling was sad, proud, and very old-fashioned: not terribly different, except for the high-tech arena, than similar scenes thirty or forty years ago.

Same place, same time, Thursday night found me back at the Wachovia Center--this time in person--for the "Troubador Reunion" concert featuring Carole King and James Taylor, who will require no introduction if you were in circulationin the early 1970s. As fate would have it, I sat in almost precisely the same (cheap) seats we normally have at Flyers' games, albeit this time with my wife and no kids (more on this later).

The time and place were the same; but everything else was different. Instead of a hockey rink there were chairs and a rotating stage for the performers to appear on. The boards that surround the rink, and which there hadn't been sufficient time to remove, provided the only continuity. Instead of a youngish crowd in orange Flyers shirts there was a parade of aging hippies in T-shirts and bermuda shorts, sipping beers and munching popcorn, many of whom looked like they had come straight from the beach (the weather had turned significantly warmer in the intervening 24 hours). Instead of the tension of a playoff game there was an intense desire to turn the clock back and avoid the cares of the everyday world: an almost palpable passion to relax.

And of course there was the music: Taylor even gaunter than he was as a kid, King with her pixieish smile and seemingly unchanged hair (she's 68), plucking the guitar and banging away on the keyboard as if nothing had changed since their original concert in LA forty years ago. Of course everything has changed: for one thing, you can actually hear concerts now, owing to the vast improvement in technology over the past four decades; encores are requested by holding up cellphones rather than matches; and many in the crowd probably have grandchildren close to the age the performers were at the original. Yet when the lights went out it was possible to ignore these differences and pretend it was 1970 all over again. The overall feeling was relaxed, happy, and just a bit raffish: like the hockey game, a bit of a throwback, but less to a real world than to the idealism of a generation that hadn't quite achieved its goals but had never quite surrendered them either.

On the simplest level, the two evenings provided a glaring cultural contrast: the competitive, supermale and almost entirely white world of hockey versus the sixties and seventies dream of a nirvana in which race, gender, and power all but disappeared. (One of King and Taylor's proudest boasts is that they didn't sleep together, which probably makes them one of the few such couples who didn't.) What is interesting is that the old-fashioned, conservative world of professional sports seems to hold more fascination for today's kids than the forward-looking, idealistic world represented by the would-be revolutionaries. My kids begged me to spend whatever it costs to go to more playoff games; when they heard about the concert, they noted politely that other parents were going, too.

Does this mean that the Sixties failed? I think it's more a matter of the difference between ideals and reality. Things like sports are timeless: they're pretty much the same in each generation. By contrast hopes and dreams, like that represented by the Sixties, are almost entirely a product of their own time and place. Without the emotions that they generated and fed off, the songs of Carole King and James Taylor become more or less meaningless. Like us our kids will get beyond sports and schoolboy crushes, dreaming their own dreams and living out their own hopes and disappointments. They'll just be different from ours: and that's what makes it at once so happy and so sad.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

the plot on (or by) philip roth

I rarely read novels, so when I do, they have to be good. On someone or other's recommendation I decided to read "The Plot On America by Philip Roth," who I don't remember reading since Goodbye Columbus about a hundred years ago. I wasn't disappointed.

The basic idea of the book is simple enough. For whatever reason, Americans have gotten tired of Roosevelt and, in 1940, vote in Charles Lindbergh--yes, that Charles Lindbergh--as their new, Republican President. As in real life, Lindbergh is a well-meaning but somewhat vapid person, and also a pretty rabid antisemite, although his inclinations in this department are somewhat reined in by his wife (Anne Morrow Lindbergh) and by American political traditions, which aren't yet ready to extend to white minorities the kind of treatment historically meted out to others. What follows is unpleasant enough: an Office of American Absorption designed to transfers Jews "voluntarily" to southern and midwestern states, where many are later dismissed from their jobs; propaganda assaults against "Jewish warmongers" coupled with a shameless cozying up to Nazi Germany, which (together with its allies) is allowed to run rampant through the Old World; and increasingly open acts of private humiliation culminating in anti-Jewish riots in cities throughout the country which leave several hundred dead and many others packing for Canada. While there is an inevitable plot twist, in which things correct themselves and the world returns to some kind of order, one has the sense that the protagonists' psychological world, together with the physical lives of many of their loved ones, have been irrevocably shaken.

On a certain level, the book might be taken as simply another "what if the south had won the civil war?" piece of historical fiction. What makes it so striking is that Roth tells the story through the eyes of his own family: his seven-year old self in 1940, recounted years later, together with his real family and the actual Newark Jewish community much as it really existed in that period. (One of the biggest surprises to me was that Newark had 50,000 Jews in 1940, constituting the sixth largest community in the nation and probably one of couple of dozen biggest in the world.) By interspersing real and imaginary details, and by describing the descent into hell one step at a time--private insults, the first public measures, and finally actual physical fear--he makes the story compelling in a way that a wholly fictional account probably could not achieve. Nor does he idealize the Jewish community, with the possible exception of his own parents: several Jews, notably an opportunistic and unfortunately all-too-believable rabbi, cooperate in the antisemitic program, while a barely literate Italian and a Kentucky tobacco farmer render indispensable services.

Some readers of the book saw a roman-a-clef about the Bush Administration and its response to the 9-11 crisis. I think this is probably overstated: the story is heavily dependent on its early 1940s milieu, and some of the heroes (see above) are the kind of people who probably would have voted for Bush a couple of generations later. Others disliked the book for taking liberties with Lindbergh or for simply lacking credibility, which I think is arguable but beside the point.

I saw the book as less a political commentary than a story about ordinary people and how they respond to extraordinary events. The real protagonists are not Roosevelt and Lindbergh but the members of Roth's own family, who struggle to respond as their world collapses and as the people they would ordinarily look to as leaders either accommodate themselves to evil or actively promote it. If there is a message, it is that simple courage and honesty are frequently more important than education and culture: another arguable proposition, but probably true more often than not.

I found the book especially provocative as someone who has studied the response of foreign Jewish communities (especially Italy) to antisemitic persecutions. Americans, who never really had to face these challenges, are frequently quick to criticize these communities for being weak, opportunistic, or cowardly. By imagining the infinitely larger and more powerful American community in an equivalent situations, and assessing its decidedly mixed response, Roth has clarified just how facile these opinions are. In one memorable scene his family is at Mount Vernon, Virginia, when Lindbergh--who still enjoys flying--soars by in his personal aircraft. "Hooray for Lindy!" the onlookers shout while Roth's parents stand in stunned silence. Was this how German and Italian Jews felt when Hitler or Mussolini made public appearances? Roth's fictional but all too real account makes the question that much more vivid for us.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

the israeli raid: no one looks good

While both sides point fingers and assess blame for the tragedy on the Mavi Marmara this week, the reality is there is more than enough blame to go around. Each side behaved all too predictably, resulting in a tragedy that captures in microcosm all that is wrong with the Middle East and how much work remains to fix it.

The Israeli side is easiest to criticize. Faced with a cynical but subtle political challenge, Israel--as the historian Paul Johnson said of the 1980 Iran rescue mission--responded with acrobatics: a derring-do commando operation that would have been a political disaster even if it succeeded and is that much more so now that it didn't. Rather than looking brutal but determined as it did in the Sharon years, Israel now merely looks foolish, a country (or at least a Government) that invariably seeks a military solution to any political problem. It is noteworthy, in this context, that support for the operation has tended to come from outside the country: Israeli opinion has been critical, although left and right have found different reasons for their criticism.

Yet the members of the "peace flotilla" have hardly covered themselves with glory, either. Once upon a time, as part of some movement or other, I took a few hours of training in nonviolent resistance. I don't recall what it involved, but I'm pretty sure it didn't include hitting people on the head with metal bars or throwing them from one level of a ship to another, something that could easily prove fatal in different circumstance. If people specifically chosen for a nonviolent mission behaved this way, what does it say for their overall movement?

And, of course, they didn't succeed in getting a smidgeon of food or medicine to Gaza.

The whole thing convinces me, if indeed I needed convincing, of the need for a more forceful intervention by the international community in the region. People like to make fun of the French and Italian armies, but there hasn't been any shooting on the Lebanese border for the last three years. Even conservative Israelis are beginning to see that the current situation is not indefinitely sustainable. A bit of creative diplomacy--more substance and less procedure, as the lawyers say--could go a very long way. Where's Menachem Begin when you need him?

Addendum: Israeli newspapers reported Friday that there was a stark division among the passengers of the Mavi Marmara, with some peace activists apparently protecting and perhaps even saving the lives of one or more Israeli sailors. It's obviously difficult to confirm this report. But it goes to show what my dean used to say: it's never that simple.