Monday, June 28, 2010

US, Mexico Can’t Score Enough

If you’re one of those apathetic Americans when it comes to World Cup soccer, chances are you don’t like it because there’s not enough scoring.
In soccer you can go a whole game without putting the ball in the net (as, for instance, Portugal and Brazil did in their first-round game). Meanwhile, in the “American pastime” of baseball, the New York Yankees scored four times in the ninth inning alone against the Los Angeles Dodgers Sunday night.
The two North American representatives at the 2010 World Cup -- the United States and Mexico -- ought to amp up their offensive games in the future following their round-of-16 exits in South Africa this weekend, the US in overtime to Ghana on Saturday and Mexico to Argentina a day later. If either nation wants its soccer taken seriously, they need to start scoring more goals.
This year’s American entry showed admirable flair for a US staple -- drama -- most notably in its lone win over Algeria, with Landon Donovan scoring in the waning moments for a 1-0 triumph. Americans value teams that know how to “come through in the clutch” -- think the US “Miracle on Ice” hockey team that upset the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics -- and this quality helped the Americans enjoy one of their most successful Cups, winning their group for the first time since 1930. That said, the Americans ultimately lost this year because of a lack of scoring, in particular getting no goals from their forwards (Brian McBride, in 2002, is the last US forward to score in a Cup game).
“El Tri” of Mexico was just as frustrating offensively. Coach Javier Aguirre stuck with the same game plan in the Cup, and while this wins kudos for consistency, it also made Mexico look predictable. The Aztecs enjoyed a promising 2-0 win over France in the first round before their offense stagnated in a shutout loss to Uruguay and the 3-1 defeat in the elimination game against Argentina. While the Albiceleste had a formidable reputation, Mexico actually had quite a few chances on Sunday -- including five corner kicks -- but an inability to execute on offense doomed the Aztecs.
The Americans and Mexicans need to diversify on offense to get better results four years from now. They can do this by emulating the Albiceleste. Coach Diego Maradona’s team has shown admirable balance, as it has reached the quarterfinals despite the fact that its superstar, Lionel Messi, has not scored all tournament thus far.
It would also behoove the US and Mexico to move past dubious officiating by the refs … the Americans on the disallowed goal by Maurice Edu against Slovenia, the Mexicans on an allowed goal by Argentina’s Carlos Tevez that put the Gauchos up 1-0. As Boston Red Sox fans can attest, dwelling on the past can prevent you from progressing in the future.
My American citizenship and Mexican heritage make me root for both the US and Mexico in future Cups. Both squads may be stuck as spectators for the duration of 2010, but I hope that an improvement on offense can fuel their fortunes for 2014.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Obama Gets it Right on McChrystal

The War on Terror that Gen. Stanley McChrystal formerly helped prosecute involved dealing with some pretty troubled countries. And part of these countries’ troubles occurred because their men in uniform grew too big for their britches (or, perhaps, their epaulets).
Iraq overthrew its monarchy after military man Abdel Karim Qassim staged a bloody coup in 1958. Qassim didn’t last long, but one of his soldier-successors, Saddam Hussein, did. Pakistan, meanwhile, endured 10 years of military rule after Gen. Pervez Musharraf overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. The resulting dictatorship only ended last year.
These tumultuous examples of military misdeeds contrast dramatically with the American tradition of subordinating the military to the chief executive. It is a tradition that has ensured, if not always success abroad, then at least the more important goal of stability at home … and it is a tradition that President Barack Obama upheld when he sacked McChrystal this week following the disclosure of the latter’s unfortunate remarks to Rolling Stone magazine.
For all of soldier-statesman Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warnings about a military-industrial complex, and for all of the continuing growth of our defense budget, our presidents have still stood up to the military in one crucial way. They remind the nation that it is the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- and not some would-be Napoleon -- who is Commander-in-Chief.
President Abraham Lincoln gave Gen. George McClellan the heave-ho … repeatedly … during the Civil War for multiple acts of disobedience. President Harry S Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordinate behavior during the Korean War (which marks the 60th anniversary of its outbreak this year). President Bill Clinton removed Gen. Wesley Clark from command of NATO forces overseeing the war in Kosovo in 1999 due to more obstinacy from the field. Now, Obama has joined his name to that resolute list.
Granted, McChrystal’s missteps seem tame compared to those of McClellan, MacArthur or Clark … and certainly with those of Qassim, Hussein and Musharraf. Still, he should have known better than to disparage his superiors before the media. A soldier, no matter how many stripes he has on his shoulder, should always salute the president and his officials … not give them the raspberry.
Maybe McChrystal felt he earned the right to speak out due to his achievements in Central Asia, which included a good working relationship with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Maybe he’s even right in his remarks -- maybe the Obama Administration really is leading Afghanistan toward “Chaos-istan.” But the place to voice such misgivings is to the chief executive himself, not to the microphones of the media, and the tragedy of his public comments is that the insubordination they represent outweighs his accomplishments on the battlefield.
Obama may continue to make tactical mistakes in foreign policy, but on a larger issue he is as rock-solid as Lincoln, Truman and Clinton. He knows that democracy can only continue if the politicians can fire the generals, not the other way around.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

An Aztec View on Drug War, World Cup

Aztec Cartoon, originally uploaded by rbtenorio.

In this corner, we have Satan, the scourge of morality in the Judeo-Christian world. And in this corner, we have Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god whom Emperor Montezuma II fatally confused with Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. The two deities journey into an Aztec world of jaguars, pyramids and plumed serpents to talk contemporary Mexican problems -- and a little World Cup soccer on the way -- in an "interfaith" episode of "The Devil (And Quetzalcoatl) Made Me Blog It"!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

McCain: No Room for Debate

When you're in a political campaign, and you have an opponent or two, a reasonable expectation is that you and your opponent(s) will have a debate.
Debates help voters by letting them know where you stand on issues they care about, and how your stances are similar to or different from other candidates. They show you not as an abstract name in a newspaper campaign story, but as a face, a voice, a physical presence. In a nation whose government is based on the exchange of ideas, debates in campaigns for elected office make sense.
Unfortunately, one of our longer-serving elected officials, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, seems to think he is above such practices. McCain has refused to debate J.D. Hayworth, his opponent in this year's Republican primary, the New York Times reports.
The senator and 2008 GOP presidential nominee has been short on explanations, other than telling one voter, "I have a day job," and his campaign staff has also proven reticent. One might guess that McCain's resistance to debate stems from the vigor of his opponent, a man with a radio and TV background who has made the campaign competitive. The senator may just dislike debates, period: He also tried to back out of a presidential debate with his then-colleague in the Senate, Barack Obama, in 2008, claiming to be preoccupied by the economic crisis.
I'm no fan of Hayworth, whose extreme views make him as big of a snake as the diamondbacks that swarm Arizona's deserts, but McCain looks pretty bad himself with his no-debate decision. It suggests he has no confidence in his ability to defend his record in public, and an unseemly fear of his opponent that ill befits McCain, a man who survived years of imprisonment during the Vietnam War.
Sadly, McCain isn't alone in dissing debates these days. My home state of Massachusetts has provided several examples of how to keep debates from the public eye. In this year's special election for the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, the three candidates -- Republican Scott Brown, Democrat Martha Coakley and independent Joseph Kennedy -- held one of their debates not on a major TV network, but on ... a Springfield public-television station. (It was rebroadcast on WGBH.) More recently, the three hopefuls for governor in the Bay State -- Democrat incumbent Deval Patrick, GOP challenger Charlie Baker and independent Tim Cahill -- debated for the first time ... on a radio station at 7 a.m. last Wednesday. When you hold debates as people are still drinking their morning coffee or commuting to work, or on stations most state viewers can’t watch, it’s as good as staging no debates at all.
What, exactly, makes debates so scary for politicians? They fret so much about mistakes they might make, but they don’t remember that debates can help them as well. For all his faults, Ted Kennedy understood this. In 1994, he was the one being challenged for a Senate seat by a younger, more telegenic opponent, Mitt Romney, before his inspired performance in a debate gave Kennedy the momentum he needed to win.
It's time for politicians to start taking debates more seriously. Talk may be cheap, but it's priceless for voters seeking to make a campaign decision. McCain needs to realize this.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shortchanging Latin America

At a bookstore in Saugus on Monday, I asked a staff member if they had any titles on Aztec history. (You might find out why later this week, faithful readers.) The staffer was very helpful and pointed me to the Latin American history section. Yet while I did find works that covered the Aztecs, I was dismayed by a larger issue: The store's entire Latin American history section only covered about one-third of a single shelf.
This illuminates a problem with the American -- or should I say, the United States -- mindset. In our educational systems and media, we devote too little attention to the nations of Latin America, with which we share geographic ties that we ignore at our peril.
I realized the extent of my own ignorance yesterday, when I opened one of the volumes on Mexican history and found that I had never heard of many of the country's natural features, such as its rivers. (Not including the Rio Grande, of course.) This surprised me because I considered myself better-informed about Mexico from the many trips I've taken to visit family there. I can rattle off the names of rivers in far-off places in Europe and the Middle East, but when it comes to basic features on my own continent, I struck out.
The only features of Latin America with which people in the US seem to show a particular interest come in three categories: when we want to go on vacation there (Acapulco, Cancun and Toby Keith‘s Cabo San Lucas), when a political leader does something we don't like (Hugo Chavez of Venezuela being the most prominent example lately), or when we feel the effects from a problem that roils a Latin American nation, such as the Mexican drug cartels or illegal immigration.
Our general lack of interest in Latin America has also helped our government pursue some pretty unsavory policies there, such as the thug-training School of the Americas and the coups we supported in Guatemala in the 1950s and Chile in the 1970s. If we learned more about such schemes and vented as much outrage about them as, say, the international community recently demonstrated on the Israeli blockade in Gaza, perhaps our Latin American policies would be more pacific.
What would be the result if, say, teachers in US public schools taught their students as much about Latin America as they did about Europe? Or if the US media covered Latin America as frequently as the Middle East? Or if bookstores opened their shelves to a spectrum of the richness of Latin American history? We would have a clearer picture of both North and South America: a clearer understanding of why many people from Latin America illegally immigrate to the US, a clearer awareness of why a leader like Chavez appeals to his followers in Venezuela, and a clearer sense that the two continents that form America are not ours to dominate, but to share.
And so I encourage people in the United States to cultivate a greater interest in Latin America. A desire to learn more about our neighboring nations to the south might help us understand them better, and to see the connections across two continents.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ban Bullies, Not BFFs

In their latest stand against bullying, schools across the country are unwittingly giving their students a lesson right out of George Orwell or Aldous Huxley.
Schools in states such as Missouri and New York are trying to eliminate bullying through an unlikely method: They are discouraging students from having best friends.
It might seem that students being bullied and students having best friends are separate issues, but so-called educators see otherwise. The New York Times reports that “the classic best-friend bond … signals potential trouble for school officials intent on discouraging anything that hints of exclusivity, in part because of concerns about cliques and bullying.”
What emerges is a push for students to be friends with … everyone. “We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends,” Christine Laycob, a day-school counselor in St. Louis, tells the Times. Parents in Pennsylvania and Georgia echo this sentiment, and camp counselors in New York take it to its extreme. They employ “‘friendship coaches’ to work with campers to help every child become friends with everyone else,” the Times reported in words that seem like an excerpt from 1984 or Brave New World.
Although I disapprove of such thinking, I can understand why schools, and others who work with children, would do this. Phoebe Prince, an Irish immigrant and South Hadley High School student, committed suicide in January after suffering repeated bullying from a clique at school. She was 15 years old. More recently, the Boston Globe detailed the heartbreaking story of Lexi, a high school freshman who endured bullying … in part from former friends. The Globe cited a Bridgewater State College think-tank that described targeting ex-friends as one example of what “a textbook case of bullying by girls” would look like.
Nevertheless, I’m worried that schools are on the wrong path here. I’m concerned that they underestimate the richness of close friendships for students. Friendships create positive moments for students in and out of school. They instill feelings of value, fun, and trust. I count with pride the friends from middle and high school that I keep in touch with about two decades later (one of whom mentioned the Times story to me). I’m not against schools encouraging students to branch out in their friendships … but I also believe that confidants aren’t common, that finding the few people who can fulfill that role takes time, and that schools are giving students the easy way out by banning BFFs.
If bullying represents students at their worst, friendships represent them at their best. (A student sitting with a friend might also offer a less inviting target to a bully.) By forming close bonds with a friend we learn the hard but rewarding experience of what it means to care about someone else. Schools should separate this from their antibullying efforts. If they continue their misguided policy, the end result will be a social superficiality in which bullying may disappear, but at a cost of students missing out on more profound lessons of life.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Forget the Gulf, Tap the Arctic!

Gulf-Arctic Cartoon, originally uploaded by rbtenorio.

In his speech on the Gulf oil spill on Wednesday, President Obama noted that oil companies are running out of options to drill undersea. He said that due to American demand, "oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean -- because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water."
Well, Satan has a simple solution for this conundrum: Tap the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He explains this strategy to the president in the latest episode of "The Devil Made Me Blog It."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sausages and Citizenship at Fenway

On the surface, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would defend people from another country who have illegally immigrated to the United States. If you’re illegal, and you’re caught, you should be sent home. Case closed.
But some folks want to do more than just deport illegal immigrants. Not only do they want to send them out the door, they want to hit them with that door on the way out and slam it shut in their faces while singing, “Now go, walk out the door, don’t turn around now, you’re not welcome anymore,” Gloria Gaynor-style. And this is why people across the US have marshaled their strength against the Arizona immigration law that Gov. Jan Brewer signed on April 23.
The latest example of such demonstrations against the Arizona law is the immigration-rights rally outside Fenway Park when the Boston Red Sox played the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday. Standing behind the sausage vendors on Landsdowne Street, protesters held signs with messages highlighting the fact that almost 23 percent of baseball players are immigrants, and urging baseball commissioner Bud Selig to withdraw the 2011 All-Star Game from Phoenix.
Granted, the Arizona law has plenty of defenders. Sixty percent of voters supported it in a nationwide Rasmussen Reports poll in late April, Newsmax magazine reported. But if immigration-rights advocates keep getting their message out, like they did on Tuesday, maybe that number will change. For the law is a mix of redundancy and repugnancy. “The law … makes it a crime to be in the country illegally,” Newsmax reported. (Isn’t that kind of repetitive?) If an immigrant can’t prove that he or she has the proper documents to reside in the US, they could face arrest, a jail sentence of up to six months, and a $2,500 fine … as opposed to simple deportation. “Piling on,” I believe, is the equivalent expression in sports.
Fenway is not the first sports venue where immigration-rights advocates denounced the law. The National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Suns showed their distaste for their state’s legislation by wearing “Los Suns” jerseys, reflecting the Mexican and Central American heritage of many of the 460,000 or so illegal immigrants in Arizona. New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick considered this move pure cynicism, wondering whether the Suns owners would have been so magnanimous if they “discovered that hordes of people were sneaking into Suns' games without paying.” One of the reader comments to Mushnick’s piece, however, put him straight: “(If) those same people had to sit two-to-a-seat, clean up other people's vomit and repair broken urinals once they've sneaked in, then maybe management wouldn't be so opposed to it.”
It was refreshing to see that people are so committed to mobilizing against the meanness in Arizona that they showed up to a Boston ballpark to protest. (Too bad they probably didn’t get to enjoy the game.) Boston and Massachusetts enjoyed a reputation for fairness in the 19th century that, while sullied at times in recent decades, has continued with the immigration issue. Here’s hoping the immigration-rights advocates who made their stand at Fenway continue spreading their message.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Pyrrhic Victory for Free Speech

Seems like some college students are hitting the barricades more than the books, and university administrators have set an admirable but flawed precedent to deal with them.
The University of California at Irvine has recommended a one-year suspension for its Muslim Student Union after members of the group repeatedly disrupted a February speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren at the college campus. Among their comments: "Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech." Of all the charges the university launched at the MSU, the one that seemed to stick most was "participation in a disturbance of the peace or unlawful assembly."
In considering the benefits that colleges offer to students, one of the most important is exposure to ideas with which they disagree. The preacher's daughter from the Bible Belt can take a course in evolution ... the Cambridge liberal can study how rent control and Social Security are economically questionable ... and Jewish and Muslim students alike can explore the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
The corollary to this is that colleges need to teach students how to disagree. No one should sit mutely through a speech they find objectionable, but neither should they throw tantrums worthy of a two-year-old. Going to college implies that we should act in a collegial manner, after all, and as the town-hall protests over health care showed, too many Americans aren't doing that these days. For the spirit of intellectual inquiry to progress, in college campuses and beyond, we need a respectful medium.
A one-year suspension for the MSU is a positive step toward showing students the difference between right and wrong ways of dissent. Yet it raises some vexing issues. Will colleges across the United States act so vigorously when other student groups act up in ways that administrators might secretly admire? I'm thinking about:
  • the Arizona undergrad who threw a pie at Ann Coulter
  • the New School students who slammed John McCain on graduation day
  • and the free-Tibet activists (I was one of them) who demonstrated against the Chinese government's visit to Harvard back in 1997.
The trouble with policing dissent is that colleges can't do it selectively. They should either punish everyone or no one. For the Irvine Doctrine to succeed, the college must apply it unequivocally.
Of course, there is an easier way to teach students how to express dissent, and that is through debate. I wonder if the MSU would have been so prone to act disrespectfully had the university brought in Ambassador Oren not as a solo speaker, but as someone debating the Israeli side of Mideast issues with a pro-Palestinian counterpart. (Harvard, for instance, did this several years ago in an exchange between Noam Chomsky and Allan Dershowitz.) Ultimately, dialogue might be the best deterrent to disrespect.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Start Snorkeling, Stop Future Spills

The Seven Seas Beach in Puerto Rico presents an array of beautiful sights to snorkelers. Brightly-colored fish swim past undulating plants in coral reefs. Some of the fish swim in schools, others are more solitary, but they all seem to coexist peacefully, navigating the ridges of the reefs somewhat more expertly than the land traffic on Route 3.
My muse and I enjoyed these sights while vacationing in Puerto Rico last week. The variety of ocean life just a few feet from the shoreline is stunning, and tourists only need a set of goggles, a snorkel and fins to experience it. And there is one group of people that particularly needs to experience it: Anyone who works for an oil company.
The inspiring scenes we saw beneath the sea contrasted sharply with the sad images of marine life destroyed by the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Based on what survivors from the blast are saying, the spill was caused at least in part by a corporate philosophy that focused too much on keeping costs down and too little about the risks of such a policy. For instance, an argument allegedly broke out on ill-fated vessel Deepwater Horizon because BP wanted to save time and money by using lighter water instead of heavier mud to keep oil from floating up.
BP and the Obama administration are now exploring proposal after proposal to contain the spill, and yet it seems something has been missing since the crisis began: An appreciation of the undersea world affected. When the cleanup work is done, BP should hold mandatory snorkeling trips for anyone who draws a paycheck from the company -- and other oil companies should do the same. Fostering an appreciation for the underwater world they work in might make companies more sensitive to avoiding future spills.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Paintball Wizards on the Gaza Strip

Gaza Flotilla Cartoon, originally uploaded by rbtenorio.

Questions abound in the wake of Israel's response to the Gaza aid flotilla. Is Turkey right to show righteous indignation given its own murky human rights record? Does Israel's use of paintball guns show that it acted moderately before using the real thing? Satan and Frank Faust discuss these issues and more in the latest episode of "The Devil Made Me Blog It"!