Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Stupid and Inappropriate

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) weighed in on Rolling Stone's decision to place Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its magazine cover, disagreeing with the publication's move.

"I thought it was stupid, and I thought it was inappropriate," said McCain in a Sunday appearance on CNN's "State Of The Union."

Here are a set of assumptions I have that makes Rolling Stones cover not inappropriate.

1) Being conventionally photogenic does not mean moral normalcy. (Ted Bundy)
2) Being on a cover of a magazine doesn't meant the publication endorses you. (Hitler, Mao, Bin Laden)
3) In assessing whether a particular publication endorses the person on its cover, the fact that the said person is described as a monster in the headline just below his image is... not immaterial.

The argument critics of the cover have amounts to "a pretty picture is worth a thousand words and supersedes the actual text accompanying the picture."

That logic would dictate that if Rolling Stone ran a good portrait of me on the cover accompanied by a headline, "How this Russian immigrant became the most notorious serial killer in central Ohio." I should be flattered because I would expect most people to be illiterate morons.

The idea behind the controversial article is not particularly deep or involved. How does a seeming normal Americanized kid become a terrorist? The visual shows the terrorist as the normal kid most outsiders thought he was and includes the headline, "how a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster."

Is the premise really that complicated to understand without being equated with support for terrorism?

Usually when arguing about something controversial the defenders of the controversial item say things like, "You don't know what you're talking about, you haven't even read the book! (seen the movie, whatever) "

With this controversy it appears that many participants in the debate haven't bothered to actually engage the language right below the picture they are objecting to.

Maybe we should do away with written language at all and make all assumptions on the basis of basic
visuals. Smiley face. Frowny face. Kitten sleeping on a pillow.

I mean, who needs to dabble in all this "reading the headline" and "trying to contrast its meaning with the provocative visual." Fuck that shit.

Friday, July 19, 2013

How many ni**as do you know, Ivan?

On Thursday nights I head out to a club near Ohio State campus. Coming to Charlie Bear is a strange habit because I don't dance or try to socialize, instead I just stand back and people-watch. Club music has a soothing effect on me and watching drunk college kids dance can be entertaining. On its best night, Charlie Bear is a like a Noah's Ark of white people dancing poorly to rap music, there are two specimens of each imaginable type of bad dancing

At this time of the year the college is out of session and the club is almost empty. Devoid of its usual zoo atmosphere, Charlie Bear loses much of its appeal to me. But I still come to check it out. The doorman often waives me thru without looking at my driver's licence. I am a regular.

Often -as a few lonely figures twerk awkwardly to the music- I sit on the make-out couch by the unoccupied stripper pole and read the New York Times on my phone.

Today, after reading an article on the bankruptcy of Detroit and finishing my beer, I decided to close my tab and head home. Since I was leaving at one am, which is early for me, I thought it would be a good idea to take a quick walk along the main strip of college bars.

On my journey, I encountered three white dudes who were asking a passing girl something. She walked on ignoring their questions.

As she left they turned their drunkenly-earnest attention to me.

"Hey man," a red-faced dude asked, "how do we get to Charlie Bear?"

I pointed in the direction and explained where it is.

"We're from St Louis" the other bro explained.

"Oh, St Louis" I said by way of acknowledgment. Yeah, St Louis... a city for which I have no frame of reference whatsoever.

"How come that girl didn't talk to us?" he asked with a befuddled expression, clearly a little wounded by the rejection.

I don't know, I thought to myself, maybe it had something to do with a vague possibility of gang rape.

The first bro opened a small metal box and revealed its context to me. I looked at a neat arrangement of tiny paper pouches.

"Do you want some?"

"What is it?" I asked.

It was chewing tobacco. St Louis and chewing tobacco are two great examples of things I never think about. As I was weighing the pros and cons of his offer, a third guy approached me.

He got really close to me and the question he asked me took my mind off of chewing tobacco real quick.

"Hey, do you know a lot of niggas around here?"

Here I reacted like the Obama-voter that I am. My expression probably changed and I said something like, "no, I don't use that word" as I shifted to move away from him.

"No, no, no," he said, "Not niggers! Niggas, niggAs, niggAAAs, you know, like the CNN. You know the CNN interview."

"Yeah, CNN, I know," I said. I knew that he was referring to a recent interview with Rachel Jeantel -a friend of Trayvon Martin- on CNN where she said that the term "nigga" could be used to describe a person of any race. This was picked up by Rush Limbaugh who celebrated the fact that he could now use a variation of the n-word without being considered a racist.

The dude reacted positively to my recognition of his reference as if I just stripped open my shirt to reveal a tattoo of George Zimmerman on my chest.

"Oh you know! You know what I am talking about!" he said with a smile as he put his hand on my shoulder, "You're a nigga... I'm a nigga!"

This where the liberal sour-puss Ivan had to put an end to this outburst of camaraderie. "No, man," I said, "just fuck off."

The St Louis group and I parted ways. I was headed in one direction to finish my aimless walk and the n-word enthusiasts were presumably following my directions to Charlie Bear which was in the middle of having its regular Hip-Hop night.

As they were walking away my eyes met with an older black man, he was shaking his head.

"They're fucked up" I said by way of explanation. It was clear to me that right before the last guy approached me with his line of inquiry, he was asking this random stranger if he knew a lot of "niggas" around here.

To top off the night, as I was driving out of the parking garage I saw five bicycle cops arresting a black guy in khaki shorts, his friend stood by with some sort of a ticket issued by the police officers.

My car stereo was playing Nas' latest album, Life is Good. In the middle of my drive home I switched the music to Snoop Dogg's first effort, Doggystyle, an often unappreciated 90's classic. "Gangsta rap never sounded so sweet" is how a critic described that album and it was blaring thru my speakers as I shut off the engine after parking the Acura in my carport.

Stay tuned for more of Ivan's fantastic adventures in post-racial America.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Law Degree Deficit

In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin trial, a lot of internet commentary ridiculed those who disagreed with the verdict for not having a law degree and therefore not suited to disagree with the jury's decision.

Wonder if the same voices chastise critics of Obama's stimulus program for not having a degree in economics?

Maybe they also stick up for the decision reached by a juries in the OJ Simpson murder trial or the Casey Anthony case?

Perhaps, those same critics would never a dispute a Supreme Court decision like say, Roe v Wade, because -after all- who knows the law better than the folks on the nation's highest judicial body?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

My 2 cents on the killing of a Florida teen

Z was driving in his car when he saw, M, a black teenager walking "suspiciously" in his neighborhood.

Z becomes convinced that M is responsible for a spree of burglaries that happened in the neighborhood.

Z calls 911 advising them of a presence of a young black male in the gated community, he voices his suspicion of M.

M has noticed a man following in the car, sees Z watching him from his car and starts to run away.

Z advises the dispatcher that M is running away. He says "these fucking punks always get away."

The dispatcher advises Z to not follow M and says the police are on the way. Z says "ok" and then follows M anyway.

An altercation happens and the the police arrive, Z is banged up and M is dead.

Z says that he left the car, lost track of M, as he turned around M came out of nowhere and attacked him. They wrestled, M beat him up, Z screamed "help!", they wrestled for the gun and Z shot M in self-defense.

I don't believe Zimmerman.

I wasn't there and I did not study this case like rabbis study the Torah, I am a liberal (even somewhat of an elitist) who -once granted the right to vote, voted the straight democratic ticket- you can accept my bias and reasoning or you can reject it.

If Martin was running away from Z, I don't see why he would come back around and assault him.

To me the key part is that when Z left the car he was convinced that M was a criminal running away. So if he left a car with that idea, the only rational reason for Z leaving the car would be try to detain M or prevent M from "getting away with it [the non-existing burglary M did not commit]."

I'm not aware of a Florida law that states that a random dude with a gun can police other people's movements on public streets. The again, I know the state of Florida to be a strange and enigmatic place.

If I put myself in the position of M, a man begins to follow me in his car, I run away from him, and he runs after me, convinced that I am a criminal. Am I allowed aggression as I turn around to face him?

What civilized thing could Zimmerman possibly tell Martin as he was chasing after him?

"Pardon me, young sir, I have been following you because of a nagging suspicion that you may be involved in a spree of burglaires in this gated community that I guard as a neighborhood watchman. Please be assured that this suspicion is not based on your racial background. In fact, some of my best friends are African-Americans. I myself am an ethnic minority and whats more I took a black girl to my high-school prom! Would you mind sticking around with me until a police officer arrives and we can all examine your behavior in a non-prejudicial way."

No, if one person is chasing another person and both runners are post-pubescent males who are not involved in an elaborate game of tag, the chase is not going to end up good. And since Zimmerman is responsible for initiating this run, by first stalking Martin and then pursuing after him after being told not to by a 911 operator, he is solely responsible for whatever happened next.

Maybe M did turn around and respond in an aggressive manner, I don't know. Does Florida's "stand your ground law" only apply to white NRA members? Or maybe Zimmerman's defenders would respond favorably to armed strangers running after them convinced that they are criminals?

M lived for 17 years. He got shot and killed by a man who was convinced that he was dealing with a "fucking punk" criminal although he never saw M commit any crime and did not know his name or age when he uttered those words during his 911 call.

Z had his defense paid for entirely by supporters convinced that he did the right thing. Z became a low-life trigger-happy racist in the eyes of millions.

M is dead. In the comment sections of the news sites reporting on the case, M was described as a thug, a drug dealer, a criminal, a violent animal. Pictures the teen took of himself, and his twitter posts were printed by tabloid to highlight his sinister nature.

When the millionaire pundit Ann Coulter heard the jury verdict absolving Z of second degree murder, her one-word reaction was "Hallelujah!"

I guess one can understand her sense of relief, for a moment there was a possibility that Trayvon Martin would be judged innocent in the case of his own death.

Nope, the dead black teen was clearly the aggressor, his killer said so.

Z was wrong after all. "Fucking punks" don't always get away.

Sometimes they just lay dead in suburban grass as American justice stumbles on.

Yeah, Ann... Hallelujah.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Suicide of an Oligarch

(Written in March of 2013)
When I was growing up in Russia, Boris Berezovsky was one of the most powerful men in the country. A few days a go he hanged himself inside his English manor. Banished into exile by big papa, aka Putin, Berezovsky died alone, apparently financially broke and heartbroken by his inability to return to his cold motherland, Russia. A country where its hard to find another person who was loathed more than him.

I won't try to recount the details of his life, there are better accounts elsewhere written by professional journalist and not bored customer service specialists devoid of a social life.

The one thing I will say is that Boris was an epitome of an oligarch.

Back in the Soviet Union everything was owned by the state. When the red empire met its demise, the new government faced the challenge of distributing all state assets into private hands.

The new government failed spectacularly in this task. They didn't fail in the sense that they couldn't privatize government holdings. They failed because the process of privatization was thoroughly corrupt.

Instead of the free market in the West where people are incentivized to build business, the new Russian elite had to grab as much government property as possible to prosper.

Basically it was the capitalism of the hungry hippo. The ethos of these guys was closer to ruthless ambition typical of gangster rap than a Harvard MBA program. The path to success involved networking with corrupt officials in charge of handing over things to you and hiring as many former KGB agents as you can to beef up you're security team.

Berezovsky was rumored to have a state of the art surveillance team, he faced numerous assassination attempts including one explosion when the driver of his armored car was decapitated, with the severed head flying by Berezovsky in the back seat.

The final result of this privatization process was the oligarch. A immensely rich and politically powerful man, who prospered in the murky time where most Russians were growing more impoverished and cynical with each day.

Corruption therefore was not one of the facts of Russian life, corruption was THE path to power and social mobility. Corruption was one of the foundations of the new, post-Soviet Russia.

No one epitomized this better than Berezovsky. He was instrumental in choosing Putin as Yeltsin's successor. But Putin did not turn out as compliant as he was expected to be. Instead he went Godfather style on the most independent-minded oligarchs. They were forced to leave the country or face prison in Siberia. This cemented Putin's institutional power but also made him the most popular Russian leader in decades.

I'll just conclude this post about Berezovsky by saying that I was surprised to feel a ping of sadness when I heard that he died. He was a morally corrupt hustler. But what a fucking hustler!

He was a unique character out of the Russian novel. All the other oligarchs were dull, usually fat, gray opportunists. They looked like tired accountants dressed in expensive suits. They were practical and pragmatic. They either adopted to the new political reality and rested their lips on Putin's pale ass as their fortunes grew or they fled abroad and led quiet, private, bourgeoisie lives.

Berezovsky was different. He never stopped scheming to return to power in Russia. For the longest time he presented himself as a democrat exiled by a brutal dictator. He openly talked about financing the overthrow of the Russian government (for which he was reprimanded by his host country, Britain). He wrote a letter to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church urging him to use the authority of the Church to move against Putin. And yet, after he killed himself, Putin's spokesman reveled that in his final month Berezovsky was reaching out to Putin, offering to make amends to his one-time protege so he could return to Russia. And I have no reason to doubt this story.

Seeing Berezovsky's pathetic demise, is like watching you're favorite TV villain finally be defeated. It is an end to a sad but fascinating spectacle of a life. The big difference is that this villain was not slain by the forces of good, instead he was crushed by the misery of a life devoid of meaning. 

Devoid, in his case, of Russia.

Friday, July 5, 2013

What makes you think the government cares about your life?

Yesterday President Nicol├ís Maduro of Venezuela has extended an offer of asylum to Edward Snowden. 

For Snowden, the beaches of Venezuela offer a nice contrast to the transit zone of the Soviet-era Moscow airport. With a new destination in sight, his biggest challenge is getting to his promised land. 

The debate that was started by his revelations has made for interesting bedfellows. 

In hid bid to escape American justice, this advocate of privacy has found refuge in the shadow of totalitarian China and was sheltered by the Russian government, a state administered centrally from the Kremlin by a former lieutenant of the KGB. 

Snowden's supporters in the United States ranged from liberal intelligentsia to anti-government conservatives thus uniting people from the opposite sides of the political spectrum in a way Obama never could. 

Snowden unleashed a flurry of internet commentary, most of it filled with indignant condemnation of a government rapidly encroaching on the privacy of its people.

One angle of this privacy debate that I never saw addressed is a basic question of why the government would even need to violate your internet privacy? What would the government look for in your email account? In your smartphone? In your computer files? 

Do you spend a lot of your time re-reading your old text messages or emails? Sifting through your 2 year old facebook pictures? Do you think there is a government worker somewhere in a dull building who is eager to rummage in that trove of stale personal minutia? 

What makes you think that anyone in the Federal government's national security apparatus gives a shit about your life or has the time or the resources to violate your privacy? 

If someone was interested in your political affiliation, well, most of that can be easily deduced from your ethnicity, education, marital status and age range. No one would even need to try to guess your first Pet's name in the password reset field. 

Do you think the government wants to steal the Social Security Number (it gave you) so it can open a credit card in your name and use it to buy gift cards at Walmart or get a happy ending at a massage parlor?

When the government says that all it does is run massive searched in corporate databases looking for suspicious word combinations related to terrorism, many people knowingly shake their heads convinced that they're being lied to. 

I actually believe them. Not because I am a particularly gullible defender of the establishment but for the simple reason that in a country with a population exceeding 300 million people, it doesn't make sense for the Feds to spy in any other way. 

Even if I was a citizen of the People's Republic of China, as long as I was not a political activist, I would feel secure in the knowledge that my privacy was not violated. Simply because it takes resources and manpower to spy on people on an individual level. And even a totalitarian government only has the resources and the desire to monitor only these persons it considers a threat to its rule. 

There is something delusional and self-aggrandizing in an average person believing that they are being spied on. 

You can bemoan the sacrifice of your privacy in the post-911 age, but even if you offered your privacy as a sacrificial lamb -ready for slaughter- no hand would lift to take its life. 


There is a fad among some politically-active Americans to delude themselves into believing that they live in a totalitarian state. Liberals did it when Bush was in the White House, conservatives do it now that Obama is in charge. 

Its popular for people to say that they are afraid of their government. Of course, those with a misfortune to live in real totalitarian states would never say that they are afraid of their government Their fear is real, and the consequences for expressing it are serious. Carrying on about your fear of your government is another luxury of living in a liberal democracy. 

Snowden deserves credit for lifting the veil on the far-reaching distrust people have toward the methods their government uses for the sake of "national security." 

I don't object to real concerns about privacy. Privacy guarantees should be entrenched in federal law, with a constitutional amendment explicitly guaranteeing the right to privacy as the best option. 

I do dislike the hyperbole and the false sense of victimhood that accompanies this debate. 

Big brother isn't home, he's out trying to get to second base with a neighborhood girl. He doesn't care about the contents of your Happy Meal box or your Pokemon cards. He is on to bigger and better things.

Jason Molina...

...was from Ohio and died at 39 on account of alcoholism. Admiring depressive and self-destructive tendencies in artists is trite but I can't stop. Inability to function in the world and an early death are almost always a plus in my book. 

Listening to this song I had a flash insight about why I'm a rap fan. 

I enjoy folk-rock and some other indie music but eventually it merges perfectly with my persistent melancholia. 

The offspring of this merger is a kind of amplified existential nausea, and then listening to these tracks after they synthesized with my mood feels fatalistic, suffocating and un-enjoyable. 

By contrast my depressive tendencies can't stick to gansta rap, like a bacteria that can't breed inside a plastic tube. Rap is teflon for my dysthymia, thus I return to it.

The Banality of Egyptian Revolution

Seeing fireworks explode over Tahrir square after President Morsi was removed thru a military coup was amusing to witness. 

I doubt that average Egyptians protesting their president have coordinated an impressive fireworks display to mark his departure. Probably the fireworks were supplied by the same Mubarak-era elites who took power from Morsi. 

The military threw out the regime and then threw Egyptians a party to celebrate the Egyptian democracy. And nothing quite fills one’s nostrils with a whiff of democracy like seeing a general on television announcing the deposition of a democratically elected president.

Everyone knows that Morsi was not the man of the hour in Egypt if hundreds of thousands of his countrymen demanded his ouster after enduring one year of his rule. But how unpopular was he?

Seeking an answer to that question I found an article in an Israeli newspaper with a headline “Egyptian poll shows Morsi popularity at all-time low.” This item was published in April of this year and at that point Morsi’s approval hit an “all-time low” of… 47%.

Yes, 47%. Nothing to brag about, ask Barack Obama who’s current approval is at 46% according to Gallup. Of course, George W. Bush’s White House would kill for a 47% approval in the waning months of that presidency.

True that poll was conducted three months ago and polling in a country like Egypt, where many people don’t own a phone, is highly subjective. But it is undeniable that anywhere between 30 to 40 percent of Egyptians supported their president who was elected in an internationally monitored election a year ago.

I am no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood, and not an expert of Egypt’s past or present. So I’m not going to pretend that I know the best course for that society. Maybe the removal of Morsi will pave a way toward a more functional political system. But it was ridiculous to witness all the euphoria that accompanied his overthrow. 

The quotes from the victors of this coup, whether they were in uniform or on the street, all harked back to democracy and revolution. None of them wanted to acknowledge that with this act they were politically sidelining at least a third of their country’s population and maybe more.

Egyptian population was not a victor in this coup, because like all other human societies this one was divided. One side won at the expense of another. And this overthrow was as much a defeat of a democratic system as it was a victory.

People pushed off a political stage tend to resort to violence.

And even if the Brotherhood and their allies don’t pick up arms, it still means that all the struggle involved in erecting the political system after the fall of Mubarak went nowhere. In the best case scenario, more than year of Egypt’s post-revolutionary history was wasted on an interim regime. In the worst case scenario, Morsi's rule foreshadowed a civil war.

Like all heads of state, Egypts deposed leader was unfairly blamed for all the problems in his country. But unlike most countries, Morsi’s nation was recovering from major political upheaval and he, the titular president, didn’t really control his government as is demonstrated by the fact that at first signs of his blood in the political waters his own government bit enthusiastically into his flesh.

Morsi’s removal might be good in the long-term or it might be disastrous.

But it opens up a new chapter of upheaval, incohesion, sporadic violence and political intrigue. And to celebrate the coming of this new chapter of Egyptian history with trite proclamation about democracy, revolution and “the people” appears stupid to this distant observer.