Saturday, June 28, 2008

The battle for Peshawar

The good news: Pakistan is finally starting to fight some of the Taliban-allied militias on its northwest frontier.

The bad news: It's only because they're about to capture a city of 3 million people.

FLASHBACK: The battle for Swat, a region some of us know all too well.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Death and the archbishop

So now we know what got Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, killed earlier this year: He wouldn't pay up anymore.

This is from the front page of the Times this morning. Not sure what to think yet -- other than that (with the possible exception of the photo they put above the fold) it's one of the more blood-boiling things I've seen in quite a while.

It's the flip-side, I guess, of the mass exodus of Iraqi Christians since the rise of the insurgency: Those who have stayed have been forced to pay handsomely for the privilege -- with the protection money becoming a major source of funding for Al Qaeda & Co.

I've been trying for a while to imagine myself in the shoes of one of those Iraqi priests -- and increasingly longing for the stark moral clarity of a deny-Christ-or-be-eaten-by-lions type deal.

I hope I could say with a straight face that I wouldn't pay; cooperating with that kind of evil just doesn't seem to fall under the rubric of "rendering unto Caesar." As for those who did: There's a kind of humbling relief that such a decision wasn't my cross to bear -- just as it's now not my place to judge.

Still, I can't help but be struck by the model of Archbishop Rahho. Who knows whether he felt any of the shame for making the payments that comes through from the other Christians in the article -- but it certainly didn't stop him from denouncing them as soon as he saw his opening. Probably a lesson there.

May his martyrdom be a powerful one -- especially in a climate that tosses that word around far too often.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert!

Not that you were going to see The Happening anyway.

For the record, I enjoyed the movie -- which is like some of the other M. Night Shyamalan films I've seen in that they often need to age a little while before you realize just how silly they are.

One of Shyamalan's more obnoxious tells is that whenever he wants the audience to know something of significance to the plot, he'll have one of his bit characters just come out and say it. Thus, he uses his own cameo in Signs to tell the Mel Gibson character -- without any indication as to how on earth he might have come across this knowledge -- that he thinks the scary alien invaders are allergic to water. Which, of course, turns out to be true.

So as soon as the creepy old botanist who's fleeing the yet-unknown phenomenon that's causing everyone along the eastern seaboard to kill themselves randomly tells Mark Wahlberg, "I think I know what's doing this. It's the plants." -- well, you know it's the plants.

Turns out, the entire northeastern flora has up and decided its finally time to punish humanity for their wicked, polluting ways -- or, in more scientific terms, rapidly evolve a chemical defense mechanism that attacks people's self-preservation instinct.

Anthony Sacramone over at First Things has some interesting and only half tongue-in-cheek thoughts as to why the film's message might not be entirely as eco-radical as meets the eye, before coming to the conclusion that it's best not to think too hard about all this.

Which is probably true, because what I picked up from the film was a sneaky and none-too-coherent attack on nuclear power.

The question gets raised from time to time throughout the movie: Why is this "happening" only happening in the northeastern United States? We never find out for sure. But during the split-second that Wahlberg flips on the radio in an abandoned truck he finds, Shyamalan makes sure the entire audience knows (see above rule) that the northeast contains the highest concentration of nuclear power plants in the country. Then there are those cooling towers ominously (and probably anachronistically) looming over our heroes as they flee through the hills of eastern Pennsylvania. And the very last scene -- after everything's supposedly returned to normal -- contains rumblings of a new attack in (of all places) France.

Though one wonders whether Shyamalan's killer flowers have really thought this out all the way. If its really nuclear power that's got them in such a tizzy -- as opposed to deforestation, or greenhouse gasses, or suburban sprawl -- do they really want to be killing off all the people who run the plants in the first place?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Among the Albanians

I'm a radio star!

Okay, not quite -- but among the many adventures of my junket to Albany was a brief appearance on Post State Editor Fred Dicker's daily radio show, which he hosts every morning from his office on the third floor of the Capitol. I'd be remiss, I suppose, if I didn't at least confess to the existence of a recording -- and though I at least held my own, I can't say my appearance was all that impressive.

Some people, as they say, have the face for radio. I'm still working on it.

Had I had my wits about me, I might have observed that Albany is a city of paradoxes. The first is the state version of that old chestnut that everyone hates "Congress" but loves their own congressman. I really did enjoy most of the politicians I met -- with full knowledge that they wouldn't get many votes if they weren't good at leaving that impression. Their office also pleads their case: A people worthy of democracy must be capable of elevating at least some competent and honorable men and women to lead it.

Otherwise, "By their works you shall know them" -- though that's perhaps not as friendly a judgment. I recommend Fred's show for a taste of what all this actually looks like.

The other paradox is something akin to what G.K. Chesterton called the "entirely practical and prosaic statement" that "whoever will lose his life, the same shall save it" -- or perhaps to Merry the Hobbit's insight from Lord of the Rings: "The closer we are to danger, the farther we'll be from harm." In other words (Chesterton again) the paradox of courage.

Not that you see much courage up there, of course; it's rather that if you look with open eyes, you start to see with precision the otherwise obscure moments where courage, and justice, and temperance, and study are lacking -- and thus, the ennobling role the virtues can play in shaping politics, even where "three men in a room" is the law of the land.

And as far as inspiration goes, that sure beats another tired Obama stump speech. At least, once you learn how to breathe through the fumes.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Oh, Albany! (Part 2)

This is what I get for making fun of their architecture.

It's actually something my boss and I had been talking about for a while, but I just found out yesterday that he's sending me to Albany on Monday, this time for an entire week. The purpose: my continuing education in the utterly dysfunctional ways of New York government.

It should be useful. Next week's the second-to-last week of the legislative session, so its an especially happening time. Plus, I'll get to spend the week under the tutelage of the universally acknowledged "most feared reporter in Albany," Post state editor Fredric U. Dicker.

Just as long as I can decontaminate my soul when I get back.
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Monday, June 2, 2008

Oh, Albany!

New York's illustrious state capital gets a bad rap from those city-folk forced to do business in it. It's small, far away, and there's nothing to do, they say. Personally, I don't see what all the fuss is about. Then again, I was only up there for one night.

The occasion was the annual Legislative Correspondents Association Dinner and Show, a black-tie affair where the Albany press corps gets to mock the state's powers that be -- largely to their faces. Let's just say they had a lot of material to work with this year. Video "rebuttals" were provided by Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco and Mayor Bloomberg (here and here, if you're at all curious). Perhaps more on this later.

But back to Albany. I'm something of a democrat when it comes to geography: every location has some hidden charm, whether we're talking about Willets Point or Staten Island. Albany is no exception. It's actually quite a pretty town in many respects. Plus it's right on the Hudson, and the train ride up from the city (a leisurely two-and-a-half hours) is absolutely gorgeous.

The centerpiece of all this is the Capitol building (above), a late-19th centure structure that (you can see) must be delightful to work in.

And then came Nelson Rockefeller. Here's the Capitol again, this time from the side. It's really the kind of building in which you can imagine big, important people like Teddy Roosevelt and Al Smith (for all their faults) doing big, important things:

Now here's what happens when you turn around:

And what on earth is this thing?

Welcome to the Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, home since 1973 to most of the bureaucracies that run New York -- and basically what Epcot Center would look like if DisneyWorld was in hell. Rockefeller, that playboy patron of the "arts," came up with much of the design himself.
When I was in Claremont, I remember several lectures put on by the American-founding types at the Salvatori Center about the role of architecture in expressing and nourishing a nation's values. It's at least interesting to reflect that this may well have been the view from Eliot Spitzer's window.