Caricatures? I Don’t Know

Posted on January 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Four years ago GOP Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee famously said that Mitt Romney looked like “the man who fired you”. So it got me thinking…what do the other candidates look like?

  • Newt Gingrich looks like your blowhard uncle who comes over for Thanksgiving, lectures you about the importance of Rotary clubs and mortgage interest deductions, all while claiming he would have been class president in high school but “smart kids weren’t popular”
  • Rick Santorum looks like your 6th grade Catholic school math teacher who slaps your wrist for having your shirt untucked, all the while hiding a massive stash of dirty magazines in his room.
  • Ron Paul looks like the weird old dude who works as the greenskeeper on a 9-hole golf course and lives in a shed where he builds model helicopters in his free time.

Any more?…

Something Doesn’t Compute

Posted on January 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Toward the end of Megan McArdle’s State of the Union criticism we get this paragraph:

As David Boaz said last night, Obama’s talk of blueprints was telling.  A blueprint is a simple plan that an architect imposes on an inanimate object.  Obama really does seem to think that he can manage the economy in the same way.  No, I don’t think that he is a socialist.  Rather, I think that he really believes there are technocratic levers that can make the income distribution flatter, the rate of innovation faster, and the banking system safer, without undesireable side effects.

But there really are technocratic levers that can make income distribution flatter!  Strengthening union rights tends to have that effect. Tackling executive pay does too. Also, I don’t think Obama himself believes that these changes, if implemented, wouldn’t create undesirable side effects. The issue is whether government action on the economy benefits society as a whole. It’d be nice if stepping back and letting the economy do its thing without government intervention actually worked out. Too bad it doesn’t.


Late January Culture Update

Posted on January 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

Before school kicks into high gear and such activities become impossible…

What I’m Reading:

Just about everything I know about al-Qaeda, apart from the misleading caricature so often found in political discourse, came from reading Jason Burke’s superb 2004 book on the terrorist group. Burke has followed up with The 9/11 Wars, an ambitious book that ties together disparate world events under the rubric of the September 11th attacks- or more accurately the American response to them. Questions considered in the course of the book include: how does the al-Qaeda operation operate within the context of Middle Eastern nation states? What do the London tube bombings, the Spanish train bombings, and the furor over the Danish Mohammed cartoons say about radical Islam in contemporary Europe? Did George W. Bush’s “surge” really lead to the reduced violence in Iraq? Who are the Taliban, and what is their role in Afghanistan’s culture and society? Why was the United States government and military so ill-equipped to deal with a complex issue as Islamic fundamentalist terror?

For anyone who has followed events in the Middle East over the past decade with interest ought to read The 9/11 Wars. Cogently written and persuasively argued, Burke’s study provides a fascinating account of how the spectacular attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon have permanently altered global affairs.

What I’m Listening To:

Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco. Woody Guthrie’s lyrics set to music provided by a British folk singer and an American alt-country band. This album is not new and has received plenty of praise, so I’ll spare you my own impressions. But buy it- or at least go to Spotify and stream it.

Both Sides of the Gun by Ben Harper. I ignored Harper during the height of his popularity in the late ’90s, but after finding this album on my iPod I’ve scarcely stopped listening to it since.  Perhaps it’s meant for older ears- who knows?

Zero 7. British downbeat music and ideal for studying, or reading the paper on a rainy day.

What I’m Watching:

I’ve been remiss in seeing many of the films nominated for the Oscars, but there are a few others I have seen that are worth mentioning.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a British Cold War spy film adapted from a novel by (who else?) John le Carre. Beautifully shot and acted, TTSS is an intelligent film that is way too difficult for mere mortals to follow. It isn’t hard to see why the BBC, in its own adaptation more than thirty years ago, stretched le Carre’s book to six hours. Gary Oldman’s performance as Agent George Smiley was pitch-perfect, and he richly deserves the Oscar nomination for Best Actor he received this morning.

Pina is a ballet film shot in 3D by the celebrated German director Wim Wenders. Typically, German ballet films do not rank high on my “must-see” list, but Pina was so visually stunning that I’d recommend it to anyone regardless of their interest in the subject. Just experiencing the grace and beauty of the athletes in a cinematic atmosphere was worth the price of admission.

Breaking Bad Season 4. America’s best TV show keeps getting better. The essential question of the show is this: are people innately pre-disposed toward crime? Or do ordinary people only resort to crime when pressed by extraordinary circumstances? And does the difference even matter?



Huntsman Walks the Plank

Posted on January 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Well- one day after I labeled Jon Huntsman Jr. pretentious for his regular and random use of Mandarin on the campaign trail, he drops out. Coincidence? I think not.

Jokes aside, Huntsman’s departure is surprising only because it didn’t happen sooner. Alone among the major Republican contenders, he didn’t have his moment in the sun. There was never a surge in excitement about his campaign, no memorable speeches or gaffes, no distinguishing policy proposals. In every presidential race there are always a few faceless candidates, ones who you forget who ran almost immediately after their campaigns end. Did you know Sam Brownback ran in 2008, for example? Or Richard Gephardt in 2004? Huntsman might be destined to be grouped in with those men: candidates who once ran for president but dropped out because nobody cared.

What’s interesting about Huntsman, though, is that he’s the first candidate who has based his qualifications for the presidency at least party on his knowledge of and experience in China. In the coming years, with Sino-American relations poised to dominate the country’s diplomatic agenda, Huntsman might find his expertise in increasing demand. At 51 he’s still plenty young enough to wait four or eight more years for his turn. After all, Mitt Romney’s once-promising 2008 campaign landed with a thud, and now he’s the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination four years later.

For that reason, I suspect that this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Jon Huntsman.…

Go East, Young Man A Hoax (If Only)

Posted on January 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 4 comments

New York, NY-

After a thorough investigation, the New York Times has revealed that a recent editorial entitled “Go East, Young Man” published on January 8th was not in fact written by Jonathan Levine but rather by a mid-level Chinese Communist Party functionary named Li Fengyu.

Following its publication, several Times readers contacted the newspaper to report that the editorial could not have possibly been written by an American teacher in China. Steven Lorenzo, an unemployed Sinologist living in Brooklyn, said Levine’s comment that CCTV was “fair and balanced” sounded eerily like an official quote he had read months earlier in a copy of the People’s Daily.

“The forgery wasn’t bad, I guess,” Lorenzo told the Times, “but that was a pretty amateurish mistake. No American would ever refer to Fox News, even rhetorically, as “fair and balanced” without some qualification. It just smacked of an outsider’s perspective”

In addition, some readers’ said Levine’s reference to Occupy Wall Street didn’t ring true to them. “It isn’t as if all of us have two college degrees, live in a rich suburb, and have a job,” one anonymous protester wrote via e-mail. “No one is idiotic enough to think that those of us protesting actually have the means to pack up and move halfway across the world. That’s when I began to suspect that the op-ed was a forgery.”

Assigned to determine the identity of the forger, the Times Beijing bureau eventually dug up Li, a 42-year old local government official in Shijiazhuang. Over a lunch of live prawns, fried bumblebees,  and numerous shots of baijiu, Li confessed that he had been tasked with writing the editorial by superiors in the Propaganda Department. “I didn’t want to do it, but once I got started it turned out to be a lot of fun,” he said.

The Times has determined that while there are 54 individuals named Jonathan Levine living in or near Greenwich, Connecticut, none has ever worked for Tsinghua University. All are gainfully employed, and most of those contacted reported that they were very much part of the “1 percent” and “would never write that kind of crap about China”.

The Times regrets the error. Li Fengyu, for his part, has accepted a promotion to the position of 3rd Assistant Secretary of the Organization Bureau of Hebei Province.

UPDATE: I altered the title a bit to ensure readers that this post is, in fact, a parody.


Huntsman and Pretentious Mandarin

Posted on January 15th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

When I lived in China there was an unspoken rule that guided conversations among English-speaking foreigners: if one or more Chinese people were present, then use of Mandarin was permitted. But if everyone in the room was a native English speaker, using Mandarin was insufferably pretentious and thus prohibited.

There were exceptions, of course. In some situations, Mandarin simply functions better than English, particularly when in China. To this day, I’m still tempted to use words such as 麻烦 (ma fan) to describe an annoying situation or 没有 (mei you) for an all-encompassing expression of “no”.  Conversations in English among Mandarin-fluent foreigners in China are often peppered with various Mandarin words and sayings. But simply speaking Chinese for its own sake was considered the height of pretension and thus normally avoided.

I was reminded of this rule when watching this clip of a recent Republican debate in which Jon Huntsman, formerly US Ambassador to China, inserted Mandarin into an otherwise banal rebuke of Mitt Romney. For those unable to view the video, Huntsman says “As they would say in China, 他不太了解这个情形” – he doesn’t quite understand the situation”.  Romney threw his hands up and laughed derisively, but otherwise the moment appeared to pass.

Yet Huntsman’s gratuitous use of Mandarin on the campaign trail hasn’t gone unnoticed among GOP voters, as this Politico piece points out.  For one, the Republican drift toward anti-intellectualism has led the party base to view  fluency in any foreign language as suspicious- just look at Newt Gingrich’s jab at Romney’s own ability to speak French. Huntsman was already in deep trouble with the GOP for agreeing to serve as President Obama’s ambassador in the first place, so additional reminders of his time in Beijing likely hurt him more than they could help.

But I wonder if some of the backlash  just results from the sheer pretension of Huntsman’s Mandarin use. If he were using Mandarin to recite some sort of Confucian proverb, perhaps that’d be one thing. But to use Mandarin in such a banal way when a perfectly equivalent English expression is available seems, frankly, weird. It isn’t surprising, then, that this once formidable contender for the GOP nomination has failed to connect with Republican voters.


A Hell of a Scam

Posted on January 8th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

Languages evolve, no matter how badly purists want to preserve them. Words change meaning all the time, and there are even certain occasions in which a word can assume a secondary meaning that is opposite to its conventional definition. Here’s a case in point, culled from the Sports Illustrated “Fan Nation” blog:

Charles Barkley may be watching his waistline as the new spokesman for Weight Watchers, but apparently he’s not watching his words too closely. The outspoken TNT announcer apparently didn’t realize his microphone was live during the Atlanta Hawks-Miami Heat matchup on Thursday night and began rambling about his new endorsement deal. “I’ve been doing Weight Watchers for three months. I have to lose two pounds a week. I’m at 38 pounds now. They come and weigh me every two weeks. I ain’t never missed a weigh-in. Never going to,” he told fellow announcers Reggie Miller and Kevin Harlan. After Harlan asked him if it was working, the former Suns’ big man said he was “feeling much better.” “But I ain’t giving away no money. I’m not giving away no free money,” he added. “I thought this was the greatest scam going-getting paid for watching sports, this Weight Watchers thing is a bigger scam.” (emphasis mine)

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Charles Barkley has long had a reputation for making controversial comments. The article here is trying to say that Barkley goofed by referring to Weight Watchers, a company which he represents as a paid sponsor, is a “scam”. Simple enough, right?

Look again at the context. Barkley clearly has a positive impression of Weight Watchers, through which the famously round basketballer has lost 38 pounds. His last sentence, which I have bolded for emphasis, is telling: Barkley compares his spokesman gig with Weight Watchers positively to his other job as a television commentator for the NBA. The clear implication is that both gigs are very good deals. In traditional parlance, this would mean the opposite of a “scam”, a word used to describe very bad deals- but here Barkley is using “scam” to mean a very good deal- as if to say that he is the one doing the scamming.

“Scam” isn’t commonly used in this manner, but the writer should have paid closer attention to the context before accusing Barkley of misspeaking. Perhaps this mini-controversy will bring the alternative meaning of “scam” into wider usage, and Barkley will be thought of as an unlikely linguistic pioneer. Stranger things have happened!