February 6, 2011

Super Bowl Halftime Entertainment

Here's the recent history:

2001: Aerosmith (and guests)
2002: U2
2003: Shania Twain (and guests)
2004: Janet Jackson And Her All-Star Nipple
2005: Paul McCartney
2006: The Rolling Stones
2007: Prince (and guests)
2008: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
2009: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
2010: The Who
2011: Black Eyed Peas (and guests)
 With the exception of 2004, there was an unbroken string on what seemed like they would have been really good acts. In fact, the Janet Jackson halftime show was actually pretty good, as these things go, up until the Justin Timberlake song which I didn't much care for in the first place and which everyone forgot because it came punctuated by a split-second glance at an attractive woman's BOOBIE!OMFGwereallgonnadie concealed by a pasty as if the nation had nothing else to worry about in 2004 other than that. Prince was quite entertaining for the likes of me, but probably a bit subversive for mainstream America. The Who was a little disappointing last year, starting strong but by the end of their set, Roger Daltrey looked like he needed to go take a nap.

Still, this is a pretty consistent record of high-quality acts delivering solid musical entertainment in a compressed amount of time and with an unlimited budget for showmanship. So let's grant that with acts like Springsteen, Petty, Prince, the Stones, and McCartney to follow, the bar was set pretty high. Disappointing would have been easy. Yet despite the understandable potential to have underwhelmed, somehow the musical acts supporting this year's big game found a way to come in below expectations.
 This year, it was bad enough when Christina Aguilera botched up the lyrics of the national anthem -- and then they went ahead and did the obviously lip-synched performance with the botched lyrics. You could tell it was lip-synched because her voice had the same volume no matted how far away she held the mic from her mouth. The fact that it was lip-synched means that they could have done another take if they'd card about getting the lyrics to the national anthem correct, but obviously they didn't. At least they made her take all the hardware out of her nose in order to clear security. 

But then, we got the Black Eyed Peas at halftime. This left me wishing quietly that the NFL had gone instead with a return engagement of "Up With People." Will.i.am can't sing without autotune, Fergie can't sing period (or at least didn't, judging by her cover of "Sweet Child O'Mine" in which Slash got dredged out of the 1990's to stand there and play the same eight notes over and over and over and over again), and I have no idea what those other two guys were even doing out there because it didn't even sound like rap, much less singing. Based on how they were all dressed, I kept on hoping for Rinzler to show up and take care of business for us but there was no relief until the teams re-took the field and we could return to football.

Next year, they could do better with Kermit the Frog leading a sing-along of "The Rainbow Connection" and "It's Not Easy Being Green." I wrote that as a joke, but actually, that might be a lot fun suitable for the whole family to enjoy. And really, it's no worse an idea than a halftime show starring "Indiana Jones."

This Is Number Thirteen Or Is It Number 4,000

This is very close to my four thousandth post. So of course it gives me much joy to dedicate it to the Super Bowl XLV champions, the 2010 Green Bay Packers, improbably coming from 14 players on injured reserve and losing one of their star cornerbacks during the game, winning the championship and proving that in football, explosive action can beat slow and steady pressure.

I'm a little bit too drunk at the moment to muse intelligently about the not-quite-a-diplomatic-flap over the weekend involving Britain and the START treaty. Maybe tomorrow. For now, I'll just enjoy my team winning the Super Bowl.

February 5, 2011

A Sub-Ordinary Gentleman

This blog is moving.  I'm not shutting down, I'm taking advantage of a fantastic offer from one of the best blogs out there on the Interwebs, the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.  For a time, I'll be cross-posting most of my posts.

After a while, though, this blog will become of interest only to my personal friends and family and those who are interested in other stuff (yes, including the food and cooking) will need to follow the better-supported and nicely-formatted blog at the League.

The new blog site can be found here.  Please update your bookmarks and RSS feeds.

February 2, 2011

Perhaps This Is Not The Best Prize

A homeless couple in Green Bay won an all-expense paid trip to the Super Bowl. Where it's only marginally warmer and less snowy than in Wisconsin right now. They are, apparently, big fans of the Packers (as should be all right-thinking Americans, including not only Chicago lawyers but also the guy who makes Pittsburgh's Terrible Towels). So they'll get flown down to Dallas, have a nice weekend in a nice hotel and some good food, and flown home. It would be an experience of a lifetime for a Packer fan, to see the team play in the Super Bowl.

But at the end of their adventure, they're still going to be homeless. Tickets, flights, food -- how much is all that worth? $10,000 or so? The median price on a house in Green Bay is $109,000. That same ten grand could go to for a 5% down payment on a median-level house in their own home town and closing costs, some basic furniture, a couple of new suits for job interviews, and finding some leads on suitable employment. Wouldn't that be better?

I'm a fan of the Packers and I'm excited about the game. But as much fun as it's going to be for those of us who can afford the luxury of indulging in its frivolity, it is still just a game. Watching the Packers play in the Super Bowl in person would be a big thrill, yes, but if I were homeless and unemployed, I would much rather watch them play on TV -- from the comfort of my own new house.

Macchiavelli, Mubarak, and Assange

The amazing thing, I suppose, is that it took nine days before things began to turn seriously violent in Egypt.

After Egypt’s dictator President Hosni Mubarak announced his intention to finish out his constitutional term of office and not seek re-election in regularly-scheduled elections this September, protesters calling for regime change in Egypt’s government seemed to split, with most of them crying that this wasn’t good enough and a sizable minority saying that Mubarak ought to be allowed to “depart with dignity” and make good on his vow to “die on Egyptian soil.” It turned ugly, people started throwing rocks, and now the Army wants the protests to end.

The U.S. response to all of this is diplomatic and nuanced in tone, too carefully and cautiously nuanced for some and not sufficiently bold and ideological for others. Many both in and out of Egypt fear that Mubarak’s announced leaves him sufficient time to put a puppet in place and that there will be no real change in how Egypt is governed, and that the United States actually has no particular problem with the idea that Egypt remaining only nominally democratic but a dependable ally is what we really want.

As I noted before with my comments about what Machiavelli would have thought of all this, that perception is probably exactly right. The problem is not that this policy is erroneous, it is that it has been stripped naked and its cynical, hard-headed realism is exposed for all the world to see. Consequently, the U.S. is losing standing and political capital with the very people out there in Tahrir Square, who for a week seemed to be open and sympathetic to the idea of engagement with the west and forming a secular democracy, who wanted a signal that they were thought of as the good guys in Washington and London and Paris.

Now, they’re not so sure. Now, they’re wondering if they have to look elsewhere for support. The handoff has been fumbled — it’s not clear whether that has been by some sort of mistake by Western diplomats, by Mubarak’s half-a-loaf concession, or if some kind of interference has made this all clear.

Which is why floating the idea of giving Julian Assange the Nobel Peace Prize on this of all days seems poignant. Assange wants to portray himself as a martyr for the cause of complete transparency in government, particularly the U.S. government. But that kind of transparency would prevent exactly the sort of public idealism/private realism maneuver which Machiavelli advises as the best way for statecraft and diplomacy to be practiced. Without the ability to be, well, Machiavellian about it, it forces a government outside of a situation like this to go all-in for one side or the other early on. It prevents hedging of bets, it raises the stakes of outcomes, and most importantly, it short-circuits the possibility of negotiated compromise settlements. Complete transparency means that gradual change becomes more difficult and revolutions, or violent repression of the same, become the only way change can take place.

Which is why Assange’s self-appointed mission of transparency is not a force for peace. Mubarak’s proposal contains the potential for being a tissue over the swapping of one strongman for another at the helm of the Egyptian ship of state, but it also contains enough of a framework for incremental change and a transition to democracy. That transition does not need to be generations long, but it probably can’t be successful overnight. Iraq did not transition from military dictatorship to constitutional democracy overnight, and neither will Egypt. Or Tunisia or Syria or Jordan or Libya or anywhere else that does not have a meaningful culture of peaceful political discourse and a tradition of democratic institutions upon which a constitutional republic can be built.

Mubarak’s compromise solution to protests against his government allows everyone some breathing room — it allows the West the breathing room it needs to assure itself that a new Egyptian government will not fall into the grips of radical Islamists or develop overt hostility to Israel. It allows the Egyptian military to stand back and not kill anyone, which it does not seem to want to do. It allows Mubarak the ability to withdraw from the field peacefully. It allows for democracy to actually develop in a way that will be enduring. And most of all, it allows the people of the various factions united only in their opposition to Mubarak’s authoritarian government the time to organize and present their visions of what Egypt could be in the future to the people of Egypt, without throwing rocks at each other or at pro-Mubarak forces and getting themselves hurt or killed.

This requires that there be some level of opacity in negotiations. This requires some tolerance of dissonance between public statements and official actions. It requires patience and nuance in forming policy. And it requires the maturity to tentatively accept compromise solutions. These are not things that radicalized crowds of protesters are good at. These are things that only leaders can do — and if Julian Assange forces their hands, radicalizes them, and prevents them from adopting these kinds of nuances, then he is not a force for peace, and he can look at the college kids in Cairo clashing with riot police and enjoy the spectacle of the world he has made.