Sunday, September 29, 2002

Sunday Clippings: Ah, Sunday, a day to sit back, take a deep breath in between weeks, read the phone-book thick Times and Tribune and pore over a couple of magazines. Whereupon I find...

First, from the depths of my reading pile, this plea in NY Times Magazine for Baseball Without Metaphor, which, in American social thought, is practically a contradiction in terms. Writer David Grann poignantly points out the problems with the mythology, excerpted below, but then proceeds to break his own rule--taking pages to plumb the soul and look for deeper social meaning in a baseball star he urges people to stop plumbing the soul and looking for deeper meaning in. And he ends with a metaphorical image of baseball as peace on earth. Pick one: either baseball shouldn't be treated as metaphor or it should.

(And the correct answer, in my opinion, is: seeing baseball as "just baseball" is like trying to see the president as just another government employee.)

As the former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once claimed, ''It is a dream of ourselves as better than we are.''
Although baseball actually began as a game played largely by urban toughs, its image was soon reconstructed to mirror the country's pastoral myth. And in the constant search for meaning in the flick of a glove or a routine hit, most of the game's greatest players, no matter how ordinary or reprehensible off the field, were also transformed into something more than they actually were. (There were exceptions, of course, like Ty Cobb, whose official biographer referred to as ''psychotic.'') In his recent book on Joe DiMaggio, Richard Ben Cramer described how the owners, along with a complicit media, created an unofficial ''hero machine'' that invented entire personalities around the best sluggers. Many of the writers, whose travel and food and lodging were paid for by the owners, turned Ruth's appetite for female fans into an appetite for hot dogs. ...

But as the latest strike loomed, it it has become harder and harder to deny the true nature of baseball -- that it is, at its core, a business like any other, filled with labor disputes, petty disagreement, greed and drugs. Still, rather than view the threat of a strike as the ordinary jostling of competing self-interests, it has been spoken of as a moral catastrophe and a violation of some sacred trust. And alongside the old hero machine there has, over the last decade of strife, emerged a kind of antihero machine, in which the most ordinary weakness -- from conceit to carousing to even a divorce -- can be seized upon as proof of some larger rot.

From last week's New Republic:
(log in with member name and password of 'nbiermaread")

One of my recent Thoughts of the Day posed the question of how important it is for everyone to agree before we change the world. A related letter to the editor is wondering this too:

On paper at least, Peter Beinart makes a strong argument for an empirical study to determine once and for all if vouchers improve student achievement ("Test Case ," July 29). What he doesn't understand, however, is that in the real world the "grand experiment" he proposes won't settle the matter. Even the best social scientists don't always agree on the score-based inferences they make about a student's status. Evidence is always subject to interpretation, even when it is gathered under controlled conditions. The clash of opinions between the Hoover Institution and FairTest, for example, over the use of standardized test scores to measure instructional effectiveness in public schools, illustrates how difficult it is to arrive at an agreement when stakes are high. Both groups are composed of eminent scholars, and yet they don't see eye to eye on issues of critical importance to the nation's schools. Why will things be any different when a blue-ribbon panel is convened, as Beinart suggests?
WALT GARDNER, Los Angeles, California

On the next page, one of my favorite political writers, Peter Beinart, on Bush's UN speech on Iraq:

Before he took the podium on Thursday morning, the United States had one rationale for war with Iraq: to prevent Saddam from gaining the nuclear capacity that could threaten the world. By the time Bush stepped off the podium, the United States had another: to make the United Nations relevant. It is this second, multilateralist rationale that has won President Bush newfound goodwill among European leaders who don't particularly fear Saddam but who love the U.N. That goodwill, however, rests on a fiction. The Bush administration is not going to war to empower the U.N., a body that until last week it treated with scarcely concealed disdain. The gap between Bush's speech and the reality of American policy will come back to haunt this administration sooner or later. And the bogus war rationale Bush has ginned up for the world is already undermining the clarity of his case at home. ...

The Bush team may think itself shrewd for having raised these other issues and thus given itself an excuse to deride Saddam's inspections offer. But focusing on peripheral issues is not shrewd at all. As much as the Turkmen deserve not to be persecuted, as much as Oman deserves a full accounting of its Gulf war prisoners, and as much as it galls us to see Saddam spending his oil revenue on palaces, these are not the reasons we are going to war. The president's defenders will note that Bush was tailoring his message to his U.N. audience. But that is precisely the problem. If the Bush administration appears to select from an array of justifications for war depending on the audience, it will breed cynicism about its motives. And it will lead Americans to suspect that the real rationale for war--Saddam's potential nuclear capacity--is just as trivial as all the others.

And on the next page after that, this TNR editorial:

When Afghan President Hamid Karzai came to New York last week, Bush presented him with what looked like a handsome trophy: The United States would contribute $80 million toward construction of a new 600-mile road linking Kabul to Herat, basic infrastructure that would help create the first semblance of a functioning Afghan economy. "Our commitment to a stable and free and peaceful Afghanistan is a long-term commitment," Bush promised. As a practical matter (not to mention a moral one) it makes sense for the United States to leave Afghanistan a demonstrably better place than we found it. The rest of the world will more easily accept American military intervention elsewhere if they believe it will be followed by humanitarian intervention. And if Afghanistan collapses into anarchy, it may once again become a haven for terrorism. ...

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had refused to free up funding, instead insisting that the State Department dig into already committed "disaster-aid funds" to find $20 million dollars for the road. (Budget experts will note that $20 million is less than $80 million.) And where had this $20 million been previously committed? To Afghan village-development projects, women's centers, and assistance for the Kabul finance ministry. So, in the singular logic of OMB chief Mitch Daniels, in order to reconstruct Afghanistan the U.S. government would have to cut funding for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

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