Food Ressentiment

Posted on September 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Navel Gazing. No Comments

Via Roger Ebert’s Twitter feed comes word of a Chandler, Arizona restaurant that specializes in serving unhealthy food to fat people. The gory details:

The burgers are free-all day, every day-at the Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, AZ. The only catch is you have to weigh at least 350 lbs. The fake nurse who weighs you is young, hot, and female. All guests, regardless of weight, are called “patients,” and are “admitted” by the “nurses,” who dress them in bibs that look like hospital gowns. Strategically placed mirrors behind the counter provide patients with heart-stopping views of fake-nurse crotch.

The menu includes unfiltered cigarettes and milkshakes reputed to have the highest fat content in the world, but burgers are the main attraction. They range from the Single through the Quadruple Bypass, based on the number of patties they contain, with two pieces of cheese for each patty, between buns shiny with lard. If you finish an 8,000-calorie Quadruple Bypass Burger, a fake nurse will push you by wheelchair all the way to your car.

Ebert comments that the 350-pounders who frequent the restaurant need it like a “bullet in the ear”. I agree. Further in the article we find the owner complaining that obese people are stigmatized and comparing them to homosexuals, inadvertently promoting the canard that sexual orientation is a lifestyle choice.

The article suggests a cultural angle; namely, the backlash against healthy eating is an expression of dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. Surely, the inclusion of unfiltered cigarettes on the menu would seem to support this viewpoint- it’s a wonder the restaurant doesn’t also sell guns and Bibles.

But the obvious problem with this movement is the assumption that political correctness is merely a set of beliefs held by a group of people for no particular purpose. This is of course false. People now support healthy eating because it reduces overall health problems and prolongs lives. People support public transportation because it is better for the environment. And so on. These policies may be supported by effete urban liberals but they also make sense on their merits.

Imagine a bar in which the most intoxicated patrons get to drink for free, where alcoholics are lionized and celebrated and encouraged to drink more and more. I think people would find such an idea abhorrent, yet this Heart Attack Grill is functionally identical.…

SF Time Lapse and Other Fun

Posted on September 24th, by matt_schiavenza in Meme. 3 comments

It’s been a beautiful few days here in the Apple as the fabled New York autumn has arrived right on schedule. Alas, the demands of grad school are such that I’ve been mainly living in the underground bunker we at SIPA call the library. Never mind, though- being back at school has given me ample opportunities to procrastinate, and what better way than to watch this beautiful time-lapse video of my very own San Francisco Bay Area:

(Incidentally if anyone knows how to embed videos on WordPress I’d appreciate it- I’ve spent the last thirty-five minutes attempting unsuccessfully to do this with a combination of Google, YouTube, and angst)

I’ve taken to my new home, and lord knows the last thing New York needs is for another wee blogger to sing its praises. But for pure, physical beauty San Francisco- the Bay Area as a whole, really- reigns supreme. I hope non-natives will see the video and be inspired to hop on a plane to SF so our beleaguered local economy gets a lift. Some odds and ends:

  • I really like this column by Eliot Spitzer about the Republicans’ risible ‘Pledge to America’. Yes, that Eliot Spitzer, the one-time governor of this very state until a rather unfortunate scandal led to his departure from office. Y’know, it’d be nice to have a Republican Party that at least had a basic understanding of macro-economics. Not these jokers.
  • I’ve been following the story of China and Japan’s diplomatic dust-up and will have more to write about it later- there is much to chew on, and even if Japan releases the boat captain- something I expect to happen shortly- the incident says a lot about power relations in East Asia.
  • I am not much of a fan of Apple and type this blog post on a beautiful little HP laptop. But I must say- the iphone 4 is pretty, pretty great. I can’t imagine organizing my time without Google Calendar sync, or navigating my way around New York without either the GPS/Google Map function or my NYC subway map application. Having an ordinary phone would be like running a marathon on crutches.
  • To Chinese readers- 中秋节快乐! The few dozen Chinese students at SIPA and some former and would-be laowai gathered for a Mid-Autumn festival party last night. The evening was replete with mediocre Chinese food and karaoke and qipao-clad 美女, always a good combination.

Afghanistan Sport Killing and the True Cost of War

Posted on September 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. No Comments

An explosive report in the Washington Post reveals that some US soldiers in Afghanistan killed random civilians for sport. The grim details are here.

The story reminded me of another, different military story I read the other day. Via Thomas Ricks, an Marine Iraqi veteran in North Carolina killed himself, unable to shake off the scars of the war upon his return to civilian life.

These two stories both underscore a theme that I’ve thought about lately- calculating the total casualties of war. Typically we define casualties as those men and women in uniform killed in action while fighting, in this case in Afghanistan and Iraq. But you could also argue quite easily that the man who killed himself back home was also a casualty, as is the wife and small child he left behind. They too are victims of a war whose effects are far more diffuse than the battlefields in some far away countries.

As with the disgusting killings in Afghanistan, my sympathies mainly lie of course with the poor locals caught in the soldiers’ murderous game. Yet one could also argue convincingly that the  soldiers too are victims- victims of an atmosphere of indiscriminate killing and senseless violence. To cite this is not to excuse them for their crime, but merely to point out that you cannot divorce the murders from their context.

I can remember as a child going to supermarkets or outdoor fairs and seeing forlorn, bearded men, often disabled, begging for money outside- Vietnam War veterans.  I remember my parents telling me that these men went over to Vietnam, came back, and were not The Same. The ones I saw survived Vietnam, but they were certainly casualties too.

These are the stories one should keep in mind the next time someone appears on cable TV advocating an attack on Iran, or Venezuela, or whatever. Or when someone blithely says that more people are killed in car accidents each year than the total number of war dead overseas. The cost of war far exceeds the number of dollars spent and soldiers killed and injured, and is truly unquantifiable. I’d like to say that this sort of thing would give pause to our leaders, but I’m not that naive.…

The Tea Party Good or Bad for the Left?

Posted on September 19th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 1 Comment

Robert Shrum, the Susan Lucci of American politics, thinks Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot with the Tea Party movement:

The Tea Party will prove to be the best thing that’s happened to Barack Obama and the Democrats since, well, Sarah Palin, the media-hyped 2008 vice presidential nominee who turned out to be a bursting bubble, not a lasting bounce, for the McCain campaign. It’s fitting that Palin is now the godmother of a movement that has captured the GOP instead of being captured by it. A series of tea-steeped intra-party fratricides has produced unwanted and unabashedly extreme candidates who will kill the Republicans’ best hopes for 2010. Democrats will now lose fewer seats; they’ll keep the Senate — and just maybe even the House. The president won’t have to struggle with the harshest consequences of a wholesale hostile takeover in Congress.

Shrum’s right that in the short term the Tea Party movement will keep Republicans from maximizing their fortunes. But in the long term I’m not convinced this is such good news for the Democrats, or for the country as a whole. Even if the likes of Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle lose winnable races this fall, the underlying situation is that the Republican Party as a whole has made a dramatic lurch to the right. A Republican Party without room for Arlen Specter and Mike Castle and Charlie Crist is one that has turned its back on its center.

In the zero-sum logic of politics, this should be good news for the Democrats, right? A Republican shift to the right leaves room for the Democrats to occupy the center, thus expanding its base and winning more elections. In the end, the Democrats become the ‘big tent party’ and the Republicans keep shrinking.

A nice thought, perhaps, but unlikely. Someday, perhaps sooner than we realize, a Republican will again occupy the White House. Republicans will again likely control both chambers of Congress. Republicans will set the national agenda, write the laws, appoint the judges, and execute American foreign policy. As a liberal Democrat myself, I find this prospect decidedly unappealing. But the pragmatist in me wishes that if Republicans must gain political power again, I’d rather that the party at least be governed by its rational, moderate wing.

Rational and moderate certainly don’t describe the lunatic Tea Party, nor would it describe the movement’s alarming xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. Despite his horrific foreign policy, idiotic fealty toward fiscal conservatism and socially backward policies, President Bush at least managed to have a reasonable position on immigration and pay lip service to the virtues of multi-culturalism. The current batch of Tea Party politicians poised to assume power in the Republican Party make Bush look like Paul Wellstone by comparison.

Christine O’Donnell will probably not become Delaware’s junior Senator this fall, but her victory in the primary election does not augur well for the country as a whole, including the Democrats.…

In the Woods

Posted on September 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. No Comments

If this view doesn’t look like a part of Manhattan you’re familiar with, that’s because it’s from somewhere else. This weekend, I spent two days camping at Lake Sebago, an idyllic spot a mere hour northwest from New York City. The trip was organized by the head of the International Security Policy concentration at SIPA, Dr. Richard Betts, and was attended by roughly 40 or 50 students in my program.…

The Crux of the Issue

Posted on September 10th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. No Comments

IOZ says here:

…the reason Muslims think that America is at war with Islam is because we keep bombing, invading, and occupying their countries! The reason “our troops” are in danger in Afghanistan is not that Rush Limbaugh hates mosques or that some Podunk preacher hates Islam’s holy book, but because “our troops” are foreign occupiers.

Exactly. I’d say that the people of Afghanistan and Iraq probably have other matters on their mind than some idiot redneck in Florida burning a bunch of Korans.

That being said, this incident is another distressing example of the anti-’them’ sentiment percolating in American society. From the anti-immigrant ‘tea party’ winning elections to the proposal to end birthright citizenship to the furor over the Islamic center near Ground Zero to the book burning party, there’s been a disturbing trend away from tolerance this year. I’d like to think that once (if?) the economy gets better these incidents will diminish but I’m not necessarily sure that’s going to happen.…

The Multitudes of Christopher Hitchens

Posted on September 10th, by matt_schiavenza in Books. 1 Comment

Recently I finished reading the memoirs of Christopher Hitchens, entitled Hitch-22. Anyone who has read much of his work would understand the title’s appropriacy. A Trotskyite socialist neo-con atheist with a loathing of Kissinger, Mother Theresa, and the Clintons (among others), Hitchens has long defied classification. No public intellectual is less predictable than Hitchens, and none evade classification quite as well as he does.

In areas in which I agree with him, most notably in his opposition to religion, his words have the habit of articulating my thoughts better than I ever could. In areas in which I disagree, like his support for the Iraq War, I’ve found him at least compelling. His erudite writing style is so idiosyncratic that he remains one of the few writers whose byline atop the page seems an almost superfluous detail. Whether his topic is Jane Eyre or Ahmad Chalabi, Hitchens is Hitchens- occasionally maddening, never dull.

Like most memoirs Hitch-22 is presented in chronological order yet has a particularly strong emphasis on personalities. Entire chapters are devoted to the people who have affected his life most deeply, from his parents to fellow public intellectuals Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, and Edward Said. In another memoir their inclusion would seem gratuitous, but this cast of famous names has seemed to have had a great influence on Hitchens; for instance, the seedlings of his eventual rift with the Left were sown from Rushdie’s condemnation by the Iranian theo-thugs following the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1989.

This rift reached its apotheosis, of course, with Hitchens’ public and vocal support of the Iraq War. Though one shouldn’t put too much stock in the opinion a mere public intellectual, I do believe that Hitchens’ full-throated defense of Operation Iraqi Freedom dealt a blow to those in opposition. It was one thing for the middling minds of the Right to vouch for belligerence. But Hitchens? His support, and that of other prominent thinkers,  gave the pro-war Right an air of legitimacy it might have otherwise been denied.

Hitchens remains unrepentant about his position, revealing a stubbornness that may or may not be admirable. For a self-described socialist, he says little about the war’s effects on the Iraqi population, many of whom have made terrible sacrifices on account of the war. Little is said about whether the war advanced the strategic interests of the West, a factor that one would think should override most others. He paints many of the war’s opponents as misguided Leftists tolerant of tyranny or anti-American Chomskyites, strawmen more popular with by far less acute thinkers than Hitchens. In short, when it came to Iraq, Hitch became the anti-Hitch- ersatz and predictable.

In an extraordinary episode, Hitchens would meet with the real-life consequences of his rhetorical hawkishness. A few years ago he learned of a young man who, encouraged by Hitchens’ writings, enlisted to fight in Iraq and paid the ultimate sacrifice. The boy’s parents contacted the famous writer to whom their son’s fate was inextricably entwined and Hitchens, to his credit, visited the family on multiple occasions and learned much about the young man. In this case, Hitchens’ rose above the easy platitudes about the virtue of dying for one’s country and wrote movingly of the reality of war’s wreckage. Short of recognition of the war’s folly, this section showed a moral soundness absent in many other armchair warriors.

Hitchens wrote about the fallen soldier ‘so that we might know him better, and even miss him’. Given the terminal nature of his illness, one could say that Hitch-22 may ultimately provide the same function. I have never met Christopher Hitchens, yet reading his articles and books over the years has enriched my life to a great extent. As a fellow atheist, I don’t believe in celestial immortality. I am confident, though, that his books and ideas will continue to delight and infuriate us well into the foreseeable future.…

The Transition

Posted on September 9th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. No Comments

In the period after deciding to go to Columbia, people in Kunming would say: ‘That’s a transition- Kunming to New York!’. I must admit I felt a little bit anxious at the prospect of going from a third-tier Chinese city to arguably the world’s most prominent city. Would I be able to handle it? Did the years I had spent in Kunming soften me to the extent that I can’t enter the ‘real world’ again? Shouldn’t I have chosen to go somewhere a little more, well, transitional than New York?

So far, and with the caveat that the weather has been good and there hasn’t been much school-work yet, I should say that the transition has been easier than I had expected. In a strange way, life in China is actually a better preparation for New York than one might realize. New York is crowded, but nothing like Hong Kong or Shanghai. Chinese cities have more concrete and much less green space than New York. The pollution there- even in Kunming- is worse than it is here. And while New York is famously noisy, the lack of construction noise is conspicuous to anyone who has lived in contemporary China.…

J-School Bad Idea?

Posted on September 8th, by matt_schiavenza in Education. No Comments

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point et. al., offers his advice to aspiring journalists:

The issue is not writing. It’s what you write about. One of my favorite columnists is Jonathan Weil, who writes for Bloomberg. He broke the Enron story, and he broke it because he’s one of the very few mainstream journalists in America who really knows how to read a balance sheet. That means Jonathan Weil will always have a job, and will always be read, and will always have something interesting to say. He’s unique. Most accountants don’t write articles, and most journalists don’t know anything about accounting. Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master’s in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that’s the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.

A few months before I applied to grad school I was pretty certain I wanted to do journalism. After all, I had written a few articles in 2008 and 2009 and thought it’d be what I wanted to do. Yet a few different people, including this highly-respected blogger, advised me not to do so and to apply for something else.

I ended up half-taking their advice- I applied to a dual-degree program at UC Berkeley that included journalism but ultimately wasn’t accepted- but now that I’m studying international relations I feel strongly that I’ve made the right choice. Time will only tell.

The rest of Gladwell’s interview is worth reading, especially his comment about education.…

Jazz in the Park

Posted on September 1st, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

On Saturday I accompanied several of my classmates to Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem to watch the jazz pianist McCoy Tyner perform at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. Tyner has had a very long career in jazz and is perhaps best known as a member of John Coltrane’s group in the early 1960s. He played solo for nearly an hour. Alas, we were sitting too far away to get a good look at him.

During my walk through Harlem I saw many residents sitting on the stoop or on chairs placed on the sidewalk, chatting. On our way back to Morningside Heights, we walked through an impromptu ‘block party’ full of loud music, children’s games, and barbeques. The festive street life reminded me of what I liked most about Asia.

I also enjoyed meeting some of my future classmates, a truly international bunch. There was a girl from Slovenia, an Indonesian daughter of diplomats who lived in North Korea for three years (‘It wasn’t that bad!’), an Indian ex-engineer embarking on a career change, a returning Peace Corps volunteer who had the distinction of being evacuated from three different west African countries during her tenure, a black guy from LA fluent in Hebrew and at Columbia to study Arabic, and an Icelandic film student. There was also a biology PhD from Dalian who graciously allowed me to speak Chinese with him despite his superior English.

Later yesterday I took the subway downtown to meet an old friend living in the Bowery, a once-dangerous neighborhood now among the more fashionable places to hang out in all of New York. We toured around some of the bars in SoHo and the East Village before finally ending up in the Meatpacking District, which might more accurately be described as the ‘meat market’ district.  The scene from the Harlem block party seemed a world removed from the beautiful people scene downtown, yet Manhattan’s tiny size and efficient subway system made both excursions a breeze.…